Nearly 14,000 people from two Nigerian communities are seeking justice in the high court in London against the fossil fuel giant Shell, claiming it is responsible for devastating pollution of their water sources and destruction of their way of life.
The individuals from the Niger delta area of Ogale, a farming community, lodged their claims last week, joining more than 2,000 people from the Bille area, a largely fishing community. In total 13,652 claims from individuals, and from churches and schools, are asking the oil giant to clean up the pollution which they say has devastated their communities. They are also asking for compensation for the resulting loss of their livelihoods. Their ability to farm and fish has been destroyed by the continuing oil spills from Shell operations, they claim.
Shell, which declared profits of more than $30bn for the first three quarters of 2022, argues that the communities have no legal standing to force it to clean up. Shell argues also that the individuals are barred from seeking compensation for spills which happened five years before they lodged their claims. The company says it bears no responsibility for the clandestine siphoning off of oil from its pipelines by organised gangs, which it says causes many of the spills.
The case against Shell is taking place as the oil major prepares to leave the Niger delta after more than 80 years of operations which have reaped substantial profits.
Daniel Leader, a partner at Leigh Day, who is representing the claimants, said: “This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies. 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.
“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.”
Lawyers argue that the scale of oil spills in the delta masks a human tragedy on an extraordinary scale, with the pollution ingested by local people causing serious health impacts and affecting mortality rates.
A report by the University of St Gallen in Switzerland found that infants in the Niger delta were twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mothers lived near an oil spill – a study which suggested there were 11,000 premature deaths a year in the Niger delta.
Shell has argued for five years that it is not liable for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) and the claims from the people of Ogale and Bille could not be heard in a London courtroom. But the supreme court ruled last year “there is a good arguable case” that Nigerian communities could bring their claims to the high court.
Shell continues to argue in its defence that it is not liable as the parent company.
As well as the thousands of individual claims against Shell, lawyers are also seeking compensation for alleged damage to communally owned property, to benefit everyone living in the midst of chronic pollution in the 40,000-strong rural community of Ogale, and in Bille, a 13,000-strong fishing community living on a group of islands in the mangrove forest region of the eastern Niger delta.
The stream which is the main source of water in Ogale for farming, drinking, and fishing has been severely polluted by oil contamination, the claims state. The pollution has killed fish, contaminated the drinking water and ruined the farmland. Most of the water coming from the borehole taps or wells in Ogale has a strong stench of oil, and is visibly brown, or covered in a sheen of oil, the claims state.
In Bille, oil spills from Shell’s apparatus have caused massive contamination of the rivers around the community, the claims say. Many people live close to the water and smell the oil in their homes. When the tide rises oily water comes right up to their houses, causing damage to their properties and possessions. The oil spills have damaged vast areas of mangrove forest and killed most of the fish and shellfish in the rivers, leaving Bille’s fishing population without a source of food or income.
The claims lodged in the high court state that Shell plc and/or its subsidiary SPDC were aware of systemic oil spills from their pipelines taking place over many years but failed to take adequate steps to prevent them or to clean them up.
Shell has been active in Nigeria for 86 years, and its Nigerian operations continue to account for a significant portion of the company’s overall profits. In a report in 2011 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) revealed the devastating impact of the oil industry in Ogoniland, and set out urgent recommendations for “the largest terrestrial cleanup operation in history”. It put the cost of an initial cleanup over five years at $1bn – around 3% of Shell’s 2022 profits.
But a report last year by a number of NGOs, said the people of Ogoniland were still waiting for a thorough cleanup of the oil spills.
A Shell spokesperson said: “We strongly believe in the merits of our case. The overwhelming majority of spills related to the Bille and Ogale claims were caused by illegal third-party interference, including pipeline sabotage, illegal bunkering and other forms of oil theft. Illegal refining of stolen crude oil also happens on a large scale in these areas and is a major source of oil pollution.”
Shell told the Guardian that it had done cleanup work and remediation of affected areas, and was working with the relevant Nigerian authorities to prevent sabotage, crude oil theft, and illegal refining which were, it said, the main source of pollution. It argued that litigation would do little to help address this issue.