Oil spill in the Niger delta

Shell can be sued in UK over Nigerian oil spills, court rules

Image credit: REUTERS/Ron Bousso/File Photo

The UK Supreme Court has allowed communities living on the Niger Delta to pursue legal action against Royal Dutch Shell in English courts over the oil spills by its subsidiary which they say harmed their lives.

The decision came after years of oil spills in the Niger Delta, which contaminated land and groundwater. The Ogale and Bille communities allege that their lives and health have suffered for years as numerous oil spills contaminated surrounding land, swamps, groundwater and waterways. The local people also claim that these spills have not been followed with adequate cleaning or remediation.

More than 40,000 people from the Delta communities – largely farmers and fishers – took legal action against Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), in 2015.

The group, represented by law firm Leigh Day, argued that parent company Shell owed them a duty of care because it was responsible for SPDC, which caused “widespread environmental damage” through oil spills as a result of negligence. SPDC is the operator of oil pipelines in a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (55 per cent); Shell (30 per cent); Total (10 per cent), and Eni (five per cent).

Leigh Day argued that Shell “exercised a high degree of control, direction and oversight in respect of SPDC’s pollution and environmental compliance”. The case also alleges that Shell had “detailed knowledge” of the high risk of large oil spills caused by interference with the pipelines and infrastructure.

Shell’s representatives argued that the court had no jurisdiction to try the plaintiffs’ claims. However, senior judges ruled that there is a “real issue to be tried”. This overturns rulings from the High Court and Court of Appeal that there was no arguable case that the UK-domiciled Shell has a duty of care to the plaintiffs.

Leigh Day said that the judgement will make it harder for multinational companies to place roadblocks (“jurisdictional games”) in the way of these types of cases, giving hope to the Niger Delta communities.

“[The ruling] represents a watershed moment in the accountability of multinational companies,” said Daniel Leader, partner at Leigh Day. “Increasingly impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgement will significantly increase their ability to do so. UK common law is also used in countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, so this is a very helpful precedent.”

Leigh Day said that the compensation sought would be quantified when the case enters the trial stage. However, Shell could push for the case to be settled out of court.

A Shell spokesperson said: “This is a disappointing decision. The spills at issue happened in communities that are heavily impacted by oil theft, illegal oil refining and the sabotage of pipelines. Regardless of the cause of a spill, SPDC cleans up and remediates. It also works hard to prevent these sabotage spills by using technology, increasing surveillance and by promoting alternative livelihoods for those who might damage pipes and equipment. Unfortunately, such criminal acts remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta today.”

Shell has blamed saboteurs for oil spills, with its 2020 report stating that crude oil spills caused by theft or pipeline sabotage had increased by 41 per cent in 2019.

Mark Dearn, director of Corporation Responsibility Coalition UK, commented: “This landmark ruling is a vital step towards justice for some 50,000 claimants from the Ogale and Bille communities. It sends a clear message to multinational corporations like Shell: you have a duty of care and you will be held to account for human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by subsidiaries you control.”

The Supreme Court ruling follows a previous ruling against Shell earlier this year regarding cases against its Nigerian operators. A landmark Dutch ruling in an appeals court held Shell responsible for numerous oil pipeline leaks in the Niger Delta and ordered it to pay damages to farmers.

This week, Shell laid out plans to reduce its own carbon emissions, although green campaigners heavily criticised the firm’s decision not to cut upstream production and instead lay the onus of decarbonisation on customers.

An investigation by E&T published earlier this month reveals how oil giant Chevron evaded responsibility for a devastating oil spill in Ecuador, largely through a multi-pronged campaign against a human rights lawyer who it sought to discredit.

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