Shell rules out Ogoni return over fears for safety of staff

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Shell yesterday said it had no plans to return to its oil wells and pipelines in the Ogoni area of southern Nigeria because it feared for the safety of its staff there.

''We would only return if we were welcomed by the local people,'' said a spokesman for Shell International in London. ''We're not interested in having to work there under military protection.''

Shell's Nigerian subsidiary pulled out of the Ogoni area in 1993 because its staff had suffered beatings, theft, sabotage and vandalism by local people.

This stemmed, says Shell, from the agitation of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), which wanted a greater share of oil revenues and an end to environmental damage. The movement called for $10bn in compensation, rent and royalties, amounting to $20,000 (pounds 12,600) for each Ogoni man, woman and child.

Shell, which operates 96 wells and hundreds of miles of oil pipeline in the area, has had to abandon equipment worth millions of pounds as well as the oil reserves. It claims that damage worth about pounds 30m has been done to four oil pumping stations since it quit.

The Ogoni area, like much of the vast, swampy Niger delta, has suffered extensive environmental damage from more than 30 years of intensive onshore oil production. Shell has the biggest presence among several oil multinationals operating in Nigeria, but all oil exploitation is done in compulsory partnership with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Oil provides the great bulk of the Nigerian Government's revenue and almost all the country's export earnings. There are dozens of onshore fields linked by 4,000 miles of pipeline to the coast.

The Ogoni area is rural but densely populated, with 500,000 people living off farming and fishing in an area the size of greater London.

The biggest environmental problem is oil spills which damage farmland and contaminate waterways from which the Ogoni get fish and water. Many of the pipelines are corroded; Shell admits that this is the main cause of the more than 200 spillages that occur each year.

But a quarter of spillages are due to sabotage, says Shell, and in the Ogoni area the proportion is more than two-thirds. Hacksaw cuts and tampering with valves are the main methods. The oil company says local people do it in order to claim compensation or "make political gains".

Another major problem is the flaring-off of the gas which comes up with the oil. The flares are hot, noisy and light up the night sky. When oil occasionally gets burnt with the gas soot is dumped on villages.

Greenpeace claims that Shell could never get away with operating onshore oilfields in the developed world in the way it does in Nigeria. But it is not simply a matter of riding roughshod over the environmental needs of poor, uneducated people. The physical environment is very hostile - swamps, poor roads, flooding, extreme temperatures and humidity - and so is the political one, with an incompetent military dictatorship apparently uninterested in enforcing environmental standards.