More than 13,650 Nigerians have filed claims against Shell for years of unremedied oil spills that are causing ecological destruction, disease, and death.
As The Intercept reported Wednesday: “Niger Delta communities have been facing pollution caused by Shell for decades, devastating their health and livelihoods. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that the threat to public health warranted ’emergency action.’ At the time, the cleanup process would have taken 30 years, if initiated immediately.”
“It never happened,” the investigative outlet noted. “Shell refused to cooperate, and the situation has only gotten worse, with 55 oil spills in the last 12 years. Amnesty International called the Niger Delta region ‘one of the most polluted places on earth.'”
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Last Friday, 11,317 residents from Ogale—a rural community in Nigeria home to roughly 40,000 people—and 17 local groups filed individual claims against Shell at the High Court of Justice in London, where the company is headquartered. They joined 2,335 of their fellow citizens from Bille—an island community of around 15,000 people where fish have virtually disappeared—who had already filed individual claims against the oil giant at the High Court in 2015.
Individual claimants are seeking compensation for loss of livelihoods. In addition, class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of Ogale and Bille inhabitants in October 2015 and December 2015, respectively, are seeking compensation for damages to communally owned property, including waterways, farmland, and public infrastructure.
British law firm Leigh Day, which is managing all four cases together, said Thursday in a statement that the communities want Shell to clean up their mess and pay up for destroying local residents’ ability to farm and fish, which has left many with no source of income.
“As we speak, oil is spilling in my community every day,” King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, leader of the Ogale community, told The Intercept. “People are dying.”
Chief Bennett Dokubo, a community leader from Bille, told the outlet that drinking water contaminated by Shell has led to major cholera outbreaks. Avoiding disease depends on one’s ability to purchase expensive bottled water from the city.
“If you don’t have money, you can’t drink water,” he said. “It’s like we are living in a desert, while we are living on the water.”
Shell executives have so far managed to avoid accountability during the seven-plus years the Ogale and Bille communities have been engaged in litigation against them.
In February 2021, however, plaintiffs scored a procedural victory when the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled unanimously that there was “a good arguable case” that Shell plc, the parent company in London, was legally responsible for the pollution generated by its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). The court ordered the case to proceed to trial to determine whether Shell and SDPC are guilty of harming the Niger Delta communities and should pay for redress.
In response, Shell argued in its November 2021 defense filing that “the company had no legal responsibility to deal with the consequences of spills,” The Intercept reported. “The oil giant contended that any legal claim must be brought within five years of any specific spill, even if a cleanup never took place. Shell also claimed that only the Nigerian regulatory authorities have the power to force them to clean up; those authorities, however, are chronically under-resourced.”
Leigh Day warned Thursday that Shell’s legal arguments, if successful, “will have far-reaching consequences.” As the law firm explained: “The implications of these legal arguments are that oil-impacted communities in Nigeria will be unable to seek cleanup of their environments. In addition, communities would be unable to claim compensation for loss of livelihoods unless they are able to prove the damage was caused by operational failure within five years of the date of issuing the claim. For most Nigerian communities living with legacy pollution, that would essentially deprive them of any legal remedy against oil companies.”
Conversely, Bloomberg reported that “if the oil giant loses the upcoming trial, it could open U.K.-incorporated firms—including in the energy and mining industries—to potentially costly lawsuits in British courts from groups around the world that accuse them of harm through overseas subsidiaries.”
Matthew Renshaw, a partner at Leigh Day who represents the Nigerian claimants, lamented that “instead of engaging with these communities, Shell has fought them tirelessly through the courts for the past seven years.”
“At a time when Shell is making unprecedented profits, it is high time that it addressed the ongoing pollution caused to these communities by its operations,” said Renshaw. “The question must be asked whether Shell simply plans to leave the Niger Delta without addressing the environmental disaster which has unfolded under its watch?”
Shell reported Thursday that its profits more than doubled in 2022 to a record $40 billion.
All the money Shell has made from exploiting the Niger Delta’s people and environment since it discovered oil in the area in 1956 “is blood money,” Okpabi, the king of Ogale, told The Intercept. “And we are going from courthouse to courthouse.”
Although cleanup would cost Shell a fraction of its annual profits—roughly $1 billion for the first five years, according to a recent U.N. estimate—Renshaw told the outlet that the company has been “incredibly resistant” to any form of public health oversight or probes, adding that it is vulnerable to much more litigation.
“There are literally hundreds of communities that have been impacted by Shell’s oil pollution,” he said, “and could seek to bring legal claims against Shell.”
As the cases against it mount, Shell has moved toward abandoning the region. The company announced in 2021 that it plans to leave the Niger Delta and sell its onshore oil fields, leaving wrecked communities and ecosystems in its wake.
Last June, however, “Shell was forced to suspend sales, complying with a Nigerian Supreme Court ruling that said it had to wait for the outcome of an appeal over a 2019 oil spill, brought in Nigerian court, which stated the company needed to pay the Niger Delta communities nearly $2 billion in compensation,” The Intercept noted.
Regarding Leigh Day’s current case, the full trial in London’s High Court is expected to occur in 2024.
“This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies,” said Leigh Day partner Daniel Leader.
“It appears that Shell is seeking to leave the Niger Delta free of any legal obligation to address the environmental devastation caused by oil spills from its infrastructure over many decades,” Leader observed. “At a time when the world is focused on ‘the just transition,’ this raises profound questions about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.”