A Dutch court has found a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell partly responsible for a case of oil pollution in the Niger Delta - a ruling hailed as a small but important step in holding multinational oil companies to account for environmental damage.
The district court in The Hague ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was responsible for one case of oil pollution in the Delta as it had failed to take adequate measures to prevent sabotage, and must pay damages.
However, the court also dismissed four other claims against the parent company itself, Royal Dutch Shell. The company said this meant a legal precedent had not been set.
The suit was filed by four Nigerian farmers, represented by the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, and centred on four oil spills between 2004 and 2007 in the Delta villages of Goi, Oruma and Ikot Ada Udo, which locals said had polluted their land.
The case was seen by green activists as a test for holding multinationals responsible for the offences of foreign subsidiaries: it was the first time a Dutch-registered company had been sued in a domestic court for alleged damage abroad.
Whatever the legal position, there is no dispute about the extent of the devastation caused by the oil production to Nigeria’s coastal region, which once supported thriving communities of farmers and fishermen, many of whom now find their livelihoods impossible because of the pollution.
The Delta of the River Niger in Nigeria is regarded as the most oil-polluted region on Earth. Fifty years of spills involving millions of barrels of crude oil would need the biggest clean-up in history to put right, according to a United Nations report. The UN Environment Program said that any environmental restoration “…could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up 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 issue was first highlighted in the 1990s by the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995, sparking international outrage. Since then there have been years of militancy by armed groups in Delta, the size of Portugal and home to 31m people, which had its origins in local anger over oil pollution and shut down nearly half of Nigeria’s oil output until an amnesty in 2009.
According to data from the company, there were 198 oil spills at Shell facilities in the Niger Delta last year alone, releasing around 26,000 barrels of oil,
The firm says 161 of these spills were caused by sabotage or theft, while 37 incidents were caused by operational failure. Local communities say Shell underreports the amount of barrels spilled.
“We will pay compensation,” said its vice president for environment, Allard Castelein. “But we didn’t lose the case. It was not operational failure. The leak was the consequence of sabotage.”
The Dutch arm of FoE welcomed the compensation order for the one village, but said it was “stunned” by its defeats in other villages. FoE spokesman Geert Ritsema said they would appeal against the acquittals “because there is still a lot of oil lying around. These sites need to be cleaned.”
Hundreds of other Nigerians in the village of Icot Ada Udo, where farmer Friday Akpan lives, can now take similar legal action, he said.
Shell is facing ongoing legal action brought in a UK court on behalf of 11,000 members of the Niger Delta Bodo community, who say the company is responsible for spilling 500,000 barrels in 2008. Shell has admitted liability for two spills in the Bodo region but estimates the amount spilled is far lower. Bodo’s case could be heard in the High Court in London next year.