Both lay the loss of their livelihoods at the feet of oil giant Shell, whose more than half a century of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta has left it “one of the most polluted places on Earth,” in the words of Amnesty International. Now, nearly 14,000 individuals and institutions from the two communities have filed claims against Shell in the High Court in London, calling on the company both to clean up the devastating pollution and compensate them for its effects.
“As we speak, oil is spilling in my community every day, people are dying,” leader of the Ogale community King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi told The Intercept.
A total of 11,317 individuals and 17 institutions such as churches and schools from Ogale filed their claims on Jan. 27, according to The Intercept and representing law firm Leigh Day. These claims joined 2,335 from Bille individuals issued at the High Court in 2015 for a total of 13,669. In addition, two representative claims have been filed for the approximately 40,000 residents of Ogale and approximately 15,000 residents of Bille.
The news of the lawsuits comes the same week that Shell reported a record $42.3 billion in profits in 2022 due to elevated oil and gas prices partly spiked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as The New York Times reported. In comparison, cleaning the pollution from the Niger Delta would cost around $1 billion over the first five years, according to a UN estimate reported by The Intercept. Shell said in 2021 it would cease its operations in the Niger Delta but said nothing about cleaning legacy pollution, according to Leigh Day.
“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,” Leigh Day partner Matthew Renshaw said in a statement. “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 first discovered oil in Nigeria in 1956, according to The Intercept. Since then, 17.5 million liters (approximately 4.6 million gallons) of oil have spilled in the Niger Delta, according to Shell figures reported by Amnesty International. This has had a devastating impact on the health of the delta’s peoples and ecosystems. A 2017 study found that babies born in Nigeria were two times more likely to die during their first month if their mothers were living near an oil spill before becoming pregnant, as The Guardian reported at the time.
In 2011, the UN Environment Programme published a three-year study finding that the impacts of daily oil pollution among the delta’s Ogoni people were “an immediate danger to public health” and recommended what would have amounted to the largest land-based pollution cleanup in history, according to Leigh Day. However, that cleanup never took place.
In the legal documents, Ogale residents claim that their main source of drinking, farming and fishing water has become so polluted with oil that it has killed fish and destroyed cropland, The Guardian reported. The water drawn from wells is brown or shiny and reeks of oil. In Bille, the pollution has killed most of the fish and shellfish the community once relied on, contaminated mangroves and comes right up to their doorsteps during high tides.
Shell has maintained that it is not responsible for oil spills that it argues are largely caused by illegal activity.
“A lot of the spills have been caused by theft and sabotage,” Shell CEO Wael Sawan told CNBC. “And even when we have tried to go back in to be able to remedy those leaks, which were caused by third parties, we haven’t been able to sometimes access it because of security concerns. So, there is a really troubled context in Nigeria and that’s a context that is best for the Nigerian government to deal with rather than a private enterprise.”
However, Nigerian communities have won legal victories against Shell before. In 2015, Leigh Day brought another case before the British court on behalf of 15,000 members of the Bodo community, who were granted around $68 million in compensation and a mandated cleanup, according to The Intercept. In 2021, a Dutch court also ordered Royal Dutch Shell to pay Nigerian farmers harmed by pollution from one of its subsidiaries.
In this particular case, the UK Supreme Court ruled, also in 2021, that there was “a good arguable case” that UK parent company Shell plc was liable for pollution caused by the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, its Nigerian subsidiary, according to Leigh Day.
Shell continues to maintain that it is not responsible for the actions of its subsidiary or any pollution resulting from “bunkering.” Further, it argues the villagers have no legal standing and that it cannot be sued for spills that occurred more than five years before the claims were filed.
“This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies,” Leigh Day partner Daniel Leader said in a statement. “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.”
The answers will have to wait until 2024, when the full trial is likely to take place.