Nearly 14,000 Nigerians from the oil-producing Niger Delta have filed a compensation claim against Shell at the London High Court. This is the latest move in a case that will test whether multinationals can be held accountable for the actions of overseas subsidiaries.
In a development in 2021, the UK Supreme Court gave a nod to a group of 42,500 Nigerian farmers and fishermen to take legal action against Shell in the English courts after decades of oil spills had contaminated land and groundwater.
According to the judges, there was an arguable case that Shell, one of earth’s biggest energy companies, was responsible as it exercised significant control over its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC).
On Thursday, the UK law firm Leigh Day said it had filed claims on behalf of 11,317 people and 17 institutions including churches and schools from Ogale community in Niger Delta for compensation for loss of livelihoods and damage against Shell.
The group joined over 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 seeking 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.
Polluted Drinking Water
The claims note that oil spills resulting from Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta have destroyed farms, contaminated drinking water and harmed aquatic life.
“The next stage in the case is for a case management hearing to be set in Spring 2023, ahead of the full trial which is likely to occur the following year,” Leigh Day said in a statement.
A Shell mouthpiece claimed the majority of spills related to the Ogale and Bille claims were caused by illegal third-party interference, including pipeline sabotage but that SPDC would continue cleaning affected areas.
“We believe litigation does little to address the real problem in the Niger Delta: oil spills due to crude oil theft, illegal refining and sabotage, with which SPDC is constantly faced and which cause the most environmental damage,” the spokesperson said.
Oil spills, sometimes due to vandalism or corrosion, are common in the Niger Delta, a vast maze of creeks and mangrove swamps criss-crossed by pipelines and blighted by poverty, pollution, oil-fuelled corruption and violence.
Shell, which declared profits of over $30bn for the first three quarters of 2022, argues that the communities have no legal standing to force it to clean up.
It also argues 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 coming at a time when the oil major prepares to leave the Niger delta after over 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.”