Niger Delta Oil Spills: An appeal to justice or an unrightful accusation?

Authors: Karla M. Rojas and Alessandra Saraccini

12th of April, 2021

The once green and biodiverse Niger Delta has been polluted by the oil industry for decades now. Sources: Getty Images and Pumps Africa.

What once used to be a green, rich, and biodiverse ecosystem, with an abundance of fishing and farming resources, is now a victim of ecocide. This is the reality of the Niger Delta, a region which is facing irreversible environmental damage to its flora and fauna, and whose local communities have lost basic human rights, such as health and access to food and clear water. 

Who is responsible for this?

For over half a century, the Niger Delta has been environmentally abused by the petroleum industry, with a reported annual average of 2300 cubic meters of oil spills – although the World Bank claims that the real estimate is as much as 10 times higher. 

Among some of the most catastrophic events in the region are the 2008 oil spills in the villages of Oruma and Goi, where multinational Royal Dutch Shell was the operator of the leaking pipelines.

With the support of Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Amnesty International, local Nigerian fishermen and farmers were able to file a lawsuit against Shell, holding it accountable for the damages caused to their ecosystem, farms, and community. 

However, Shell claimed that it is not responsible for the petroleum spills. These were a result of one of the innumerous Nigerail oil thefts, through which local communities bring petroleum to the many illegal oil refineries. In fact, it is estimated that almost 30% of oil spill accidents are caused by failures in engaging in this business. 

In addition, Shell claimed to have supported the Nigerian community in sufficient clean up interventions and monetary compensations. 

Shell’s commitment to a more sustainable energy system and a net-zero emissions business by 2050 supports this hypothesis, in that it shows their willingness to have a positive impact on the environment. 

After 13 years…

… The Dutch appeals court has ruled that the Nigerian branch of multinational Royal Dutch Shell is responsible for the 2008 oils spills and must compensate for the damages caused, as well as install a leakage detection system in the Nigerian Delta pipelines.

Should Shell really be held accountable? Is there enough proof of sabotage of the 2008 accident? What makes this court ruling a historical one?

Listen to our podcast to find out more…

Or, if you prefer, read our infographic to quickly get informed about the topic…

References

Asimiea, A., & Omokhua, G. (2013). Environmental impact of illegal refineries on the vegetation of the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Journal of Agriculture and Social Research13(2). https://www.ajol.info/index.php/jasr/article/view/112571/102322

Baazil, D. (2021, January 29). Shell Loses Dutch Court Case Over Nigeria Oil Spills. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-29/dutch-court-orders-shell-nigeria-to-compensate-for-oil-spills

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. (2008, May 9). Shell lawsuit (re oil pollution in Nigeria)https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/shell-lawsuit-re-oil-pollution-in-nigeria/

Clowes, W. (2021, February 12). Nigerians Can Sue Shell in U.K. Over Spills, Top Court Says. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-12/nigerians-can-sue-shell-in-u-k-over-oil-spills-top-court-says

De Rechtspraak. (2021, January 29). Shell Nigeria liable for oil spills in Nigeriahttps://www.rechtspraak.nl/Organisatie-en-contact/Organisatie/Gerechtshoven/Gerechtshof-Den-Haag/Nieuws/Paginas/Shell-Nigeria-liable-for-oil-spills-in-Nigeria.aspx

Friends of the Earth Europe. (2021, January 29). Nigerian farmers and friends of the earth win historic oil pollution case against shellhttps://friendsoftheearth.eu/press-release/nigerian-farmers-and-friends-of-the-earth-win-oil-pollution-case/

Getty Images. (2015). Oil spills keep devastating Niger Delta [Photograph]. Deutsche Welle. https://www.dw.com/en/oil-spills-keep-devastating-niger-delta/a-18327732

Pumps Africa. (2019). Construction of huge hydroelectric dam on Niger River to begin [Photograph]. Pumps Africa. https://pumps-africa.com/construction-of-huge-hydroelectric-dam-on-the-niger-river-to-begin/

Ratcliffe, R. (2020, October 15). ‘This place used to be green’: The brutal impact of oil in the Niger delta. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/06/this-place-used-to-be-green-the-brutal-impact-of-oil-in-the-niger-delta

Reuters Staff. (2019, August 30). Oil theft cost Nigeria 22 million barrels in first half -NNPC. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/ozatp-uk-nigeria-oil-theft-idAFKCN1VK1NT-OZATP

Stakeholder Democracy Network. (n.d.). Communities not Criminals – Illegal Oil Refining in the Niger Deltahttps://www.stakeholderdemocracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/CommunitiesNotCriminals.pdf

Vidal, J. (2020, October 15). Niger delta oil spills clean-up will take 30 years, says UN. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/aug/04/niger-delta-oil-spill-clean-up-un

4 thoughts on “Niger Delta Oil Spills: An appeal to justice or an unrightful accusation?

  1. Hey! First of all, I certainly learned some about this court case that I was not very familiar with. However, I’m a little disappointed with the approach of this piece, especially of the podcast, in the way it sets out to take a middle ground approach. I don’t know if the opinions you promote are your own, Karla, or if it was an attempt at establishing a middle ground, with two parties disagreeing with each other before finding common ground. If it’s the former I have to say that I could hardly disagree more with how you approach thinking about this case, as it betrays, in my view, a naïve level of trust in the status quo, where Shell is approached as an inherently neutral or even benevolent actor, local impoverished communities are scolded and seen as predatory (who are the real predators?), and colonial dynamics are disregarded (I sadly experience discussion of colonial dynamics to be absent from the piece altogether). If you structured your piece in this way on purpose, I would like to point your attention to the golden mean fallacy. Essentially, what is true, accurate or most just is not necessarily what is the center of opinion. For all we know something radical or some unpopular opinion can be more accurate or just than what lands in the center of public opinion, and I would argue that this has indeed been the case and the driving force of change throughout history. Furthermore, if you pose talking points from Shell as a viable side in a two-sided debate, it shifts the entire dynamic of the discussion, similarly to how setting a climate change denier and a climate scientist up against each other thwarts the debate. It is okay to be polemical and opinionated, especially in this time when all life on Earth depends on it.

    I know some of these criticisms can seem quite harsh, but I mean them in good faith. After all, it’s all of us against the billionaires if we wish to stay alive on this planet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Vebjorn. Thank you for your constructive comment and for highlighting some important factors surrounding the court case, which were not included in our brief podcast. I am happy that you initiated a discussion about this.

    Our goal was to provide an overview of the arguments that are currently being used by both parties, and, in particular, try to mimic how they would be portrayed in ‘standard’ media outlets. Indeed, as you rightfully pointed out, equally distributing the weights assigned to Shell and the local Nigerian communities is unjust, and reinforces the long-lasting inequity and unbalanced power dynamics. You could argue that the court case per se is also inherently part of this flawed system, since, legally speaking, the two parties involved are 1:1, with each having the right to a defense, a fair trial, and, theoretically speaking, a neutral jury. The message that we wished to convey through our podcast is how ‘easy’ it can be to defend one’s actions, by choosing the right arguments and the right words, and by giving it the right weight, regardless of whether such actions are deemed to be morally and ethically correct.

    Bit of a tangent but… Sadly, while in an ideal and just world the media should be a reflection of equity rather than equality, and give voice to those who have incomparably fewer resources, rights, and power, I am not sure whether that is a feasible possibility for the near future. Specifically, in Shell’s case, the economic and political power that they bear, as well as the direct/indirect control that they have over our lives, as individual consumers and as a societal entity, is perhaps unmeasurable. As narcissistic and privileged as this may sound, I believe that until Shell’s actions have a direct catastrophic, easily quantifiable and harmful impact on the lives of the privileged global north, main media outlets will not take a radical position against them. This makes me think of the instance in which US news platforms (even traditionally right-wing ones) openly criticized/interrupted Trump’s nonsense speech about voter fraud. This was done because his words were a direct threat to the public, i.e., could have had immediate negative consequences on the “privileged population”, by instigating even more social unrest. Had his speech that evening been potentially harmful/hateful for a marginalized/less privileged community, would every media outlet in the US have stopped him? Sadly, don’t think so. I’m not defending the status quo, I am just acknowledging it.

    Again, our goal was merely to give a somewhat (unfortunately) realistic representation of how the media could discuss the issue of the Shell oil spills in Nigeria, and with that, indeed, indirectly highlight the inherently flawed and unbalanced way in which information is provided to us. I do agree that a text explaining the above would have helped crystallize our stance on the subject.

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  3. Hi everyone! Thanks for the comment & reply. I was just about to point to some issues that Vebjorn already talked about. I would like to add 2 points.
    1. If you have talked to someone 100 itmes and have found out that each of the 100 times, this person lied to you, would you trust them the hundred and first time? I doubt it. Shell knows about the destructive impact of their products since the 80’s (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2018/sep/19/shell-and-exxons-secret-1980s-climate-change-warnings). Still, they decided to hide these facts and rather fund lobby groups that deny the existence of the climate crisis and actually continue to do so until today (https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2020/09/28/bp-shell-climate-lobby-groups/). Likewise, Shell has no intention of stoping to drill for oil, no matter how much green colour one can find on their website (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/26/shell-not-green-saviour-death-machine-greenwash-oil-gas).
    So, why should we all of a sudden believe a company, that has lied to us for 40 years about their practices?

    2. I find it quite surprising that this podcast does not talk about the Ogoni 9, a group of 9 Nigerian activists that opposed Shell’s practices in 1995 and were murdered as answer. Shell is complicit in this murder (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/06/shell-complicit-arbitrary-executions-ogoni-nine-writ-dutch-court/). It is important to understand that Shell ONLY cares about profit, not about the lives of humans. Profit is more important than the lives of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine. Therefore, Shell must be dismantled and has no right to exist anymore.

    Thanks a lot for bringing this case to our attention!! (Sorry to you (not to Shell) if my comment is angry, but Shell makes me angry)

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  4. Hi Augi – apologies for replying so late. Thank you for mentioning the Ogoni 9 tragedy. Indeed, we would have liked to include this topic but didn’t due to time constraints.

    What really shook me as I was gathering information regarding the oil spills in the Niger Delta and the Court ruling was that the Ogoni 9 was seldom mentioned in media outlets, even in some that were “critical” of Shell. To me, including the Ogoni 9 events in the discussion would indeed seem an objective and obvious proof of Shell’s lies and atrocious acts against the local Nigerian population.

    One hypothesis that I came up with, to explain why the Ogoni 9 wasn’t immediately brought up in the oil spills discussion, is perhaps to avoid “pro-Shell” people using a halo&horn logical fallacy argument against “anti-Shell” people (apologies for the very simplistic terminology). What I mean is that I could imagine supporters of Shell arguing that Shell’s involvement in the Ogoni 9 events has nothing to do with the oil spills accusation, and discrediting those who are referencing such event in the context of the recent court ruling – in a way, they would be using their own words against them. So perhaps that could be a reason why quite some “anti-Shell” media outlets did not mention the Ogoni 9 in the first place…?

    Like

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