Shell’s day of reckoning approaches

It is three years since the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) published the findings of a ground-breaking scientific study into the appalling impacts of oil pollution in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta. It found that hundreds of thousands of people have been exposed to serious health risks from soil, drinking water, fisheries and air contaminated with oil particles.

This week Amnesty and Friends of the Earth, in conjunction with a number of other NGOs, issued a briefing called No Progress to draw attention to Shell’s lack of effective action to implement UNEP’s recommendations. It is not often that a company succeeds in uniting human rights and environmental organisations to campaign jointly against it for more than a decade. But then Shell is no ordinary company, and the Niger Delta is no ordinary place.

Shell has one of the slickest PR machines of any corporation, which it has needed over the years to avoid accountability for some of the most far-reaching and longest-standing acts of contamination in corporate history. But realities on the ground in the Niger Delta are beginning to catch up with it more than half a century after the oil began flowing.

In June, the UK High Court found that Shell could be liable for oil leaks if it doesn’t take reasonable steps to secure its pipelines. This ruling came as part of a civil claim brought by people from the Bodo community in the Delta, which was devastated by two massive spills in 2008 and 2009.

UNEP was very clear in blaming Shell and the Nigerian Government. The main recommendation to Shell was to overhaul procedures for oil spill clean-up and remediation, as well as to improve on contracting and supervision. As of today, Shell still persists with the inadequate clean-up methods that UNEP condemned in its study.

Why does Shell think it can continue to get away with such negligence?

In contrast, BP has accepted its culpability and expects to pay out over $40 billion for its part in the lesser effects of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Clearly, the regulatory environment is much tougher in the US than in Nigeria with BP having to act swiftly to protect its reputation, meet a large number of civil claims for damages and ensure it can continue to operate in the US. Whereas Shell in Nigeria has managed to defend its corporate image by shifting the blame to others, including the Nigerian government and affected communities.

Shell’s approach of downplaying the reality of the unfolding environmental disaster in the Niger Delta and evading responsibility for this has worked well until now. But there are signs that the sands are starting to shift.

The courts are beginning to probe into the details of the daily operations of the Shell Group of companies. Fresh grounds are appearing on which the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, as well as other members of the group, can be held liable. And its Nigerian subsidiary finds itself under scrutiny, not just before Nigeria’s judiciary, but also in the UK and the Netherlands. This is escalating.

Now that the courts are holding Shell’s actions up to scrutiny, it will become more difficult for it to continue to withhold information about the age and condition of its oil infrastructure in the Delta. Nor will the company be able to shift the blame to criminals and saboteurs without taking effective action to secure its pipelines. For the first time Shell is being required to explain why valuable infrastructure has been left exposed to vandalism and theft without adequate leak detection systems, surveillance equipment and anti-tamper measures.

This is helping to expose many of Shell’s spurious claims on the causes of oil pollution. It also opens the door for Nigerian claimants to demand compensation if oil leaks were a result of the company’s failure to take proper preventive measures. Those of you who have campaigned to keep the spotlight on Shell’s abuses can feel reassured that the company’s day of reckoning is coming closer.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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