Yesterday news broke that the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the UK/Dutch oil giant’s Nigerian subsidiary, admitted responsibility for two catastrophic oil spills in the Bodo region of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Today the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the most comprehensive study detailing the devastating environmental impacts of oil production on Ogoniland. Taken together, the report and admission of responsibility by Shell are powerful reminders of the crippling effect the oil industry continues to have on the Delta’s economy and environment, particularly on local communities that rely on the land and water for their survival.

Extensive oil spills devastate resources in the Niger Delta

In August and December 2008, two wellheads owned by SPDC sprang leaks spewing 14,000 tons of crude oil into the region’s waterways, devastating water, food, and fuel resources. People in the community say that in each instance, the wellheads were not capped until they had been spewing oil for over three months, even though Shell representatives admit they had been aware of the leaks for several weeks.

The spill is estimated to be larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, and covers an area of coastline equivalent to that of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, unlike the BP incident, the Bodo spills occurred within the creeks and rivers of the Bodo communities, and will not dissipate naturally as some scientists’ claim of oil in the Gulf of Mexico (a highly controversial claim). Experts say that while remediation is possible, it will likely require twenty years and $100 million to clean up. Tragically, spills like these are nothing new to the region, which has experienced an average of three spills per day totaling nearly 13 million barrels over the nearly 50 years of oil production in the Delta.

The impoverished people from these Delta communities have borne the brunt of devastating, toxic pollution since drilling began there in the 1950s. Many Ogoni have never lived without contaminated soil and water, and although Shell stopped producing oil from Ogoni as a result of popular opposition in 1993, they still pump oil across Ogoniland through the Trans-Niger pipeline.

UK Lawsuit: Shell admits responsibility and agrees to settle

Photo courtesy of Amnesty International UKOver 69,000 members of the Bodo community filed a class-action case against Shell in the UK seeking remediation for the damages caused by the dual spills. Their lawyer, Mr. Martyn Day of London’s Leigh Day & Co. noted the impact the spills have had on the community: “The Bodo people are a fishing community surrounded by water. What was the source of their livelihood now cannot sustain even the smallest of fish. The spills have caused severe poverty amongst the community.”

The lawsuit prompted SPDC to admit that the spills were caused by equipment failures and accept responsibility for the damage caused by the two spills that continue to pollute and destroy the Bodo area. The company will likely pay $410 million to settle the suit.

Ben Amunwa of Remember Saro-Wiwa in the UK is a longtime campaigner for justice and compensation for the people of the Niger Delta. He spoke to ERI yesterday about the announced settlement. “This is a step forward for holding corporations like Shell accountable for their widespread violations of human rights abroad. But there is still a long way to go,” he said. “Shell must take urgent action to clean up its daily oil spills in the Delta region. Every day that Shell delays full restoration of the environment that has suffered five decades of pollution, the impact worsens.”

Other suits have been brought against Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary SPDC in Nigeria, the Netherlands, and the United States for environmental harms and human rights abuses related to the company’s oil operations in the Niger Delta. These claims have covered issues ranging from continued gas flaring (a leading emitter of greenhouse gases that contributes to acid rain and a practice that is illegal under Nigerian law), to the destruction of the delicate ecology of the Delta, to complicity in murder, torture and other serious harms. ERI was involved in a case in U.S. federal court over Shell’s complicity in the killings, torture and severe abuses committed by the Nigerian military against individual Ogoni in the early 1990s. That case was only settled in 2009 when Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million, which allowed for the creation of a trust for the Ogoni people and compensation for the victims in the case and their surviving relatives.

UNEP recommends complete overhaul of SPDC policies, $1 billion fund

The UNEP  report covers the environmental effects of the oil industry in Ogoniland. The report concluded that SPDC had not followed its own policies for cleanup and remediation, but also asserted that those policies are inadequate—SPDC should review and overhaul them. “The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil cleanup exercise ever undertaken if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health,” the report stated. It also suggested that the company implement an “Asset Integrity Management Plan for Ogoniland” and a decommissioning plan with feedback from the Ogoni people. Finally, UNEP recommended that SPDC start a $1 billion fund exclusively for environmental restoration, capacity building, skills transfer, and conflict resolution in Ogoniland with some financial input from the Nigerian government. With renewed focus on cleaning up the Niger Delta and contributions from responsible parties under the polluter pays principle, UNEP says remediation is possible.


This guest post was contributed by Katie Shay, a legal intern in our US office. Katie is a third year law student at Georgetown University Law Center.