Shell failed to act on its own internal advice to replace a 30-year-old pipeline years before it wreaked havoc on the Niger Delta by rupturing and spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the area, according to court documents.
The two giant spills, in 2008, affected about 35 square miles of southern Nigeria, including sensitive mangroves, and ruined the livelihoods of up to 15,000 villagers in Bodo in Ogoniland, who are suing the company in London in a case due to start in May.
Furthermore, while Shell has previously admitted fault for the two spills, the court documents show the company has underestimated the volume of oil that escaped.
The admission in the documents, obtained by Amnesty International, could have significant financial implications for Shell. This is because they cast doubt on the company’s assessment of hundreds of other spills on the Niger Delta because all spill investigations are conducted in the same manner, Amnesty says.
Moreover, although Shell has admitted fault for the two 2008 leaks, it has repeatedly blamed oil thieves for many other spills from its pipelines in the region, limiting the compensation it has paid out.
But a preliminary judgment in the case suggested the company could be liable for all illegal activity on its pipelines if it were shown that it failed to take reasonable steps to protect its infrastructure.
An internal report in 2002 suggested that Shell “initiate an immediate replacement” for the pipeline because it posed a risk to surrounding communities, say the court documents, which include emails, letters and internal reports.
This followed another report, a year earlier, which according to court documents said a number of leaks were already occurring in the two-foot-wide trans-Niger pipeline and suggested that some sections posed significant dangers.
“A series of spills have occurred in recent times due, in most cases, to sabotage and in some cases to technical failure of pipelines, resulting in major losses, environmental pollution and serious damage to the company’s image,” the report said.
“A [technical] study ... indicates the remaining life of most SPDC [Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria] oil trunklines is more or less non-existent or short, while some sections contain major risk and hazards,” it added.
Shell strongly denied any suggestion that it knowingly used an unsafe pipeline and said the court documents contained emails that Amnesty International had taken out of context.
“SPDC dismisses the suggestion that it has knowingly continued to use a pipeline that is not safe to operate,” a spokesman said.
The court documents also contain an admission by Shell that its estimates for the volume of oil spilt in the region were both wrong.
Shell investigation reports done in conjunction with others for the two spills claimed only about 4,000 barrels of oil were spilt in total, but an independent assessment published by the US firm Accufacts estimates that more than 100,000 barrels were spilt. “The total volume of oil released … exceeded the contemporaneous estimates”, Shell said in the court documents.
A Shell spokesman said: “We accept that the total volume of oil released as a result of the two operational spills is likely to have exceeded the... estimates.” He added that the company had always accepted responsibility for the two “deeply regrettable” spills in Bodo. “We want to compensate fairly and quickly those who have been genuinely affected and to clean up all areas where oil has been spilled from our facilities.”
Audrey Gaughran, director for global issues at Amnesty International, said: “[Amnesty] firmly believes Shell knew the Bodo data were wrong.
“If it did not, it was scandalously negligent – we repeatedly gave them evidence showing they had dramatically underestimated the spills.”Reuse content