Oil pollution by Shell in Nigeria: the legal case

Source: WorsethanBad

On 30 January 2013 in The Hague a Dutch judge will rule in a special court case that four Nigerian farmers and Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) jointly brought against Shell Nigeria and its parent company Royal Dutch Shell in 2008. Shell is held accountable for oil pollution in the Nigerian villages of Goi, Ikot Ada Udo and Oruma.
They brought charges against both Shell Nigeria (Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria – SPDC, a subsidiary of Shell) and the Dutch parent company/multinational (Shell PC) due to oil pollution. The case is unique because it is the first time that a Dutch multinational has been brought before the court in its own country for environmental damage caused abroad. The verdict could have major international consequences. Worldwide, dozens of legal cases have been brought against the oil giant due to pollution and damage caused by oil production. The lawyersrepresenting Milieudefensie and the Nigerians in the case are Channa Samkalden and Liesbeth Zegveld of the prominent Böhler law firm in Amsterdam.

Main hearing: 11 October

Following more than four years of legal obstacles by Shell, on 11 October 2012 a key hearing if the case will take place in the court in The Hague. Shell has tried in vain to prevent this, such as by arguing that the Dutch court was not competent to rule on its subsidiary zusterbedrijf Shell in Nigeria. On 30 December 2009, however, the court decided that it in fact is competent to rule on the case. This was the first major victory for the farmers and Milieudefensie. Shell also stated that Shell Headquarters in The Hague has no control over damage caused by its subsidiary in Nigeria. The court will consider this element on 11 October.

Oil pollution by Shell in Nigeria

When oil disasters occurred such as the Exxon Valdez tanker near Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, public indignation and attention was great and an emergency action plan was announced at lightning speed. But in Nigeria an oil disaster with a far greater scope has been ongoing for decades. Tens of millions of vats of oil have been leaked there since the 1950s. This slow oil disaster brings disastrous consequences to people, wildlife, nature and the environment.

Most of the leaks in the Niger Delta are due to poor maintenance (corrosion, warn-out materials) and inadequate security of the pipelines (which run uncovered through villages) – this means cracks can develop and criminals have easy access for sabotage. The Dutch multinational Shell, which in Nigeria is the ‘operator’ of the joint venture with Shell, other oil companies and the Nigerian government, is directly responsible: it manages the pipeline network.

The legal case

The legal case of Milieudefensie and four Nigerian farmers and fishers focuses on just three leaks that occurred in the villages of GoiOruma and Ikot Ada Udo out of the thousands of leaks which have occurred. These leaks took place years ago. One of the original plaintiffs, Chief Barizaa Dooh from Goi, has since passed away. Since 2008 Shell has been drawing out the legal case so that it has been postponed for four years. Barizaa’s son Eric has now taken over the case and is still hoping to obtain justice in the name of his father.

Many people have also left the three villages – Goi is even deserted because it has become uninhabitable due to a continuous, penetrating stench and polluted drinking water, as well as polluted fishing areas and agricultural ground on which nothing will grow. New leaks also occur regularly, as things have not yet improved at the Shell installations, nor is there adequate security against thieves who try to steal the oil.

The claim

The demand of Milieudefensie and the four victims is therefore simple:

  • Shell must repair the damage in the three villages by properly cleaning up the oil;
  • Shell must prevent new leaks from occurring in the future, by properly maintaining its material and protecting it from sabotage;
  • Shell must compensate the four victims for the damages suffered.

Furthermore it is necessary that the Dutch court rules that Shell Headquarters in The Hague is responsible for damages caused by its subsidiary SPDC in Nigeria. This is an important element in the legal case: Milieudefensie wants Dutch companies to behave the same abroad as they would in their own country and to take responsibility for what happens there. Because Shell Headquarters in The Hague for all intents and purposes directly manages its foreign subsidiaries, the policy abroad must be changed.

International significance of the legal case

The legal case in the three villages is only an example but could have major consequences for other victims in the region, and possibly for other comparable cases worldwide: if Shell’s Dutch Headquarters is held liable for the pollution caused by its subsidiary zusterbedrijf in Nigeria, other Nigerian victims would also be able to bring cases here. This is something many of them have tried to do in Nigeria, but usually without success: due to an inadequate justice system and corruption, the hundreds of cases brought there have never had an effect. Victims of other multinationals could also try to obtain justice in the country of origin of the company if they are unsuccessful in their own country.

More information

  • More information about the farmers from Goi , Ikot Ada Udo and Oruma, the  legal case, the plaintiffs, the lawyers and other documents concerning the legal case.
  • More information about the history of Shell in Nigeria can be found in the timeline onwww.worsethanbad.org

Source: Milieudefensie