Court Orders Shell to Pay for Nigerian Oil Spills

A Dutch court has ordered Shell's Nigerian subsidiary to pay farmers in Nigeria for damages following oil spills.

Shell Oil Spill Pollutes Water In Nigeria
A woman, surrounded by oil, retrieves cassava that she buried in the mud before a Shell pipeline spilled crude oil in the area. October 15, 2004, Goi, Nigeria. Jacob Silberberg / Getty Images

Between 2004 and 2007, oil spilled out from pipelines owned by a Shell subsidiary, polluting the fields and fish ponds in three Nigerian villages.

So four Nigerians teamed up with Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands to sue Shell over the leaks in 2008. Now, nearly 13 years later, a Dutch court has largely ruled in their favor. 

“Finally, there is some justice for the Nigerian people suffering the consequences of Shell’s oil,” plaintiff Eric Dooh said in a press release. “It is a bittersweet victory, since two of the plaintiffs, including my father, did not live to see the end of this trial. But this verdict brings hope for the future of the people in the Niger Delta.”

The case involved three leaks: two from pipelines near the villages of Oruma and Goi and one from a well near the village of Ikot Ada Udo. The Court of Appeal in the Hague issued its decision on the first two spills January 29, ruling that Shell Nigeria must compensate the villagers for the damage done. Further, it ruled that both Shell Nigeria and its parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, must install a warning system in the Oruma pipeline so that leaks can be detected and stopped before they cause significant environmental harm. 

The compensation will be life-changing for the plaintiffs. Dooh hopes to use it to invest in his home village of Goi and create jobs, Milieudefensie climate justice campaigner Freek Bersch told Treehugger in an email. Another plaintiff, Fidelis Oguru of Oruma, wants to use it for an operation to recover his eyesight. 

However, it is the second half of the ruling that is especially significant. It marks the first time that a Dutch company has been held responsible for the actions of one of its subsidiaries abroad, Friends of the Earth explained. Campaigners say this could set an important precedent for the Netherlands, Nigeria, and the wider world. 

“This is also a warning for all Dutch transnational corporations involved in injustice worldwide,” Milieudefensie director Donald Pols said in the press release. “Victims of environmental pollution, land grabbing or exploitation now have a better chance to win a legal battle against the companies involved. People in developing countries are no longer without rights in the face of transnational corporations.”

Bersch said that more lawsuits would likely be brought against other oil companies acting in Nigeria. 

“But,” Bersch added, “we hope that this judgment will also be a stepping stone for court cases for victims in other countries, against other multinationals, in other courts.”

The ruling could also help with the growing movement to hold fossil fuel companies liable for the effects of climate change. 

Milieudefensie has one such case pending against Shell. The suit demands that Shell reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent of 2010 levels by 2030 and to reach net-zero by 2050. Bersch said that the group expected a verdict in a lower court by May 26 of this year.

The fact that the court ordered Shell to improve its warning system is also crucial for the future of the Niger Delta. The region has suffered significantly over the years from oil pollution. Shell British Petroleum, now Royal Dutch Shell, first discovered oil in the region in 1956, according to an article published in the Journal of Civil and Environmental Research. Since then, the process of extraction has harmed wildlife, caused erosion, and contributed to flooding and deforestation. Further, nine to 13 million barrels of oil have spilled in the area over the last 50 years, 50 times the amount spilled from the Exxon Valdez. The Niger Delta is now one of the five most oil-damaged ecosystems in the world.

All of this has impacted human health and wellbeing. The pollution has claimed the lives of 16,000 babies a year, according to Friends of the Earth, and people living in the Niger Delta have a life expectancy 10 years shorter than people in the rest of the country. 

Read more: Nigeria's River Ethiope Could Be First Waterway in Africa Recognized as a Living Entity

“The most concrete outcome that will contribute towards a less polluted Niger delta is that Shell has to act quicker to stop oil spills, specifically by installing leak detection systems in the pipelines,” Bersch said. 

Shell Nigeria, for its part, argued that the frequent spills were a result of sabotage, and that it moved swiftly to clean them up regardless. 

“We continue to believe that the spills in Oruma and Goi were the result of sabotage,” a spokesperson for the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) said in an email to Treehugger. “We are therefore disappointed that this court has made a different finding on the cause of these spills and in its finding that SPDC is liable.”

The company said that, in 2019, around 95 percent of spills from its operations in Nigeria were caused by theft, sabotage, or illegal refining. However, a joint report from Milieudefensie and Friends of the Earth Nigeria found that some of the sabotage seems to be caused by Shell’s own employees. 

The court said that Shell did not provide enough evidence of sabotage in Oruma and Goi. The spill near Ikot Ada Udo was demonstrably sabotage, the court ruled. However, it is not clear if this means Shell is no longer liable. The case will continue while the court examines evidence concerning whether or not the spill was adequately cleaned and where the oil has spread.

Shell could also appeal parts of the Oruma and Goi decision to the Supreme Court, Bersch said. However, a spokesperson said they had no information about any next steps the company would take.

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