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Shell accused over misleading figures on Nigeria oil spills

Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth International today (25 January) filed an official complaint against oil giant Shell for breaches of basic standards for responsible business set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The organisations claim that Shell’s use of discredited and misleading information to blame the majority of oil pollution on saboteurs in its Niger Delta operations has breached the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The complaint was filed with UK and Netherlands government contact points for the OECD.

Tomorrow (Wednesday 26 January) Shell will be under scrutiny for its environmental and human rights impacts during a hearing in the Dutch Parliament on the company’s activities in Nigeria.

In the mid 1990s Shell accepted that much of the oil pollution in the Niger Delta was due to the company’s own failures.  However, the company now blames sabotage by communities and criminals for most of the problem, citing misleading figures that purport to show as much as 98% of oil spills being caused by sabotage.

While sabotage is a problem in the Niger Delta, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth International have repeatedly challenged Shell’s use of such figures, which have been strongly criticised by environmental groups and local communities.  Under Nigerian law, when spills are classified as being the result of sabotage, Shell has no liability with respect to compensation for damage done to people or their livelihoods.

Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Issues, said:

“Shell’s figures are totally lacking in credibility. Widespread oil pollution is a key problem caused by oil industry in the Niger Delta, but the oil spill investigation system is totally lacking in independence.”

Both Friends of the Earth International and Amnesty International found that in many cases oil companies have significant influence on determining the official cause of a spill.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA) and chair of Friends of the Earth International said:

"We monitor spills regularly and our observations often contradict information produced by Shell. Several studies have placed the bulk of the blame for oil spills in the Niger Delta on the doorsteps of the oil companies; particularly Shell. It should take its responsibility and clean up the mess it made in our country.”

Despite repeated requests, Shell has so far failed to make clear the basis for the figures they have published and how the data was gathered. Furthermore, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth International have documented cases where Shell claimed the cause of a spill was sabotage, but the claim was subsequently questioned by other investigations or the courts.

In 2009 Shell was compelled to correct misleading information regarding the cause of oil spills. After repeatedly claiming that 85% of all oil spills in 2008 were caused by sabotage, it announced that the figure was closer to 50%. Neither the claims of 85% or 50% have been properly explained. Moreover, Shell made almost no attempt to correct the erroneous impression created by its widespread use of the 85% figure.

In over half a century of Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta thousands of oil spills have left an appalling legacy of environmental harm.  Water that people use for fishing and drinking is polluted with oil, while farm land and crops have been destroyed.  

The misuse of data on the cause of oil spills, and the failure of Shell and the government to ensure fair, credible investigations perpetuates human rights abuses, by denying justice and compensation to communities.

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