Shell sued in UK for ‘decades of oil spills’ in Nigeria
About 40,000 Nigerians mainly from Ogoni land have dragged Royal
Dutch Shell to court in London, demanding action from the company to
clean up oil spills in their area.
Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, leader of Nigeria’s Ogale people, unpacked
four bottles of water from his homeland and lined them up on a table
to show why his subjects are suing Royal Dutch Shell in a London
The Nigerian water is contaminated with oil and cancer-causing
compounds such as benzene. It is what his people drink every day.
Britain’s High Court began hearing lawsuits on Tuesday filed by the
Ogale and Bille people alleging that decades of oil spills have fouled
the water and destroyed the lives of thousands of fishermen and
farmers in the Niger River Delta, where a Shell subsidiary has
operated since the 1950s.
They brought their fight to Shell’s home base because they say the
Nigerian courts are too corrupt.
“Let the shareholders of Shell who are residents of the advanced
world, like Britain, let them see a representative of a kingdom that
is being destroyed for them to have money,” he told The Associated
Press news agency on the eve the hearing. “That’s blood money.”
The Anglo-Dutch oil giant argues the case should be heard in Nigeria,
pointing out it involves its Nigerian subsidiary SPDC, which runs a
joint venture with the government, and Nigerian plaintiffs.
London law firm Leigh Day is handling the cases after it won a
landmark agreement from Shell to pay $83.5m in compensation to the
Bodo community for damage caused by oil spills in 2008 and 2009.
Shell originally offered $50,000 before the Bodo took their case to
the same UK court.
The new lawsuits were brought by two communities located in Ogoniland,
part of the oil-rich southern Niger River Delta.
They want to hold Shell, incorporated in the UK, responsible for the
actions of its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development
Company of Nigeria Ltd, or SPDC.
The subsidiary said it has produced no oil or gas in the region since 1993.
The area is heavily affected by crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and
It is arguing in court that the legal challenge is speculative and
full of “legal and evidential weaknesses”.
SPDC said it will challenge the jurisdiction of the UK courts in this
case – arguing it concerns Nigerian plaintiffs in dispute with a
Nigerian company over issues in Nigeria.
“If the Claimants’ lawyers are correct as to the existence of this
novel duty of care, [Shell] and many other parents of multinational
groups will be liable to the many hundreds of millions of people
around the world with whom their subsidiaries come into contact in the
ordinary course of their various operations,” the company said in its
“That would constitute a radical if not historic expansion of the law
and open the floodgates to litigation on an unprecedented scale.”
The Ogale and Bille communities account for only a small portion of
the millions of Nigerians that human rights activists say have been
injured by contamination they say would never have been allowed in the
home countries of the multinational oil companies that operate in
partnership with the Nigerian government.
Shell was the first oil company to operate in Nigeria, starting
production in 1958.
In the 1990s, the military government sent armed troops to put down
protests by the Ogoni people, turning the oil-producing south into a
One of the leaders of those protests was Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and
environmental activist whose opposition helped stop Shell’s production
He and eight others were hanged by the government of military dictator
Sani Abacha in November 1995 in a case the US condemned.
President Muhammadu Buhari has promised a clean-up of Ogoniland, which
was supposed to start in June but has been delayed.
The new lawsuits come at a time when Shell is pivoting towards other
areas, such as Brazil.
It recently bought BG Group Plc for $52.4bn, increasing its proven
reserves of oil and gas by 25 percent. And like other oil companies,
it is also slashing jobs and postponing investments to adjust to lower
But Shell is still seen as having deep pockets, said David Elmes,
course director of the Warwick Business School’s Global Energy
While Shell would argue its settlement with the Bodo community shows
its willingness to provide compensation for problems it caused, the
new cases involve damage arising from what Shell says is sabotage and
theft, Elmes said.
And as Shell looks to move to other countries, “people who feel they
have a case against the company are looking to take action now”, he
In a 2011 report, the UN said in at least 10 communities in Ogoniland,
public health was “seriously threatened” by drinking water
contaminated with hydrocarbons.
In one area, the water contained the carcinogen benzene at levels 900
times higher than what the World Health Organisation says is safe.
While the report recognised that oil production in the region had
ceased, it criticised Shell’s oversight of the remaining facilities.
Armed group blows up major pipeline in Nigeria
The report recommended emergency measures to provide adequate drinking
water. But so far nothing has been done, said Okpabi who describes
himself as the paramount ruler of the Ogale people.
He brought the bottles of water to his lawyer’s office in London just
to make the point.
Removing his hat and leaning forward, he argues his people have been
made poorer by the destruction of an ecosystem.
He is angry at Shell, arguing it called the shots for its Nigerian
subsidiary and so should be held accountable in Britain.
“My system cannot give me justice,” Okpabi said. “There is only one
place that can give me justice. That is why I am here.”