The English Supreme Court will rule next week on whether the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell, can be taken to court over the actions of its subsidiary and a series of oil spills in Nigeria.
The spills took place in the communities of Bille and Ogale, in Nigeria’s oil-producing region of the Niger Delta. They have been attributed to the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Royal Dutch Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary.
The case is significant because the English court could set a precedent for where companies can be held accountable for their behaviour.
The court may rule that even though Royal Dutch Shell is based in London, it could be considered responsible for the actions of SPDC in Nigeria, and so residents of Bille and Ogale may later be entitled to compensation from Royal Dutch Shell .
If so, then other communities in the Niger Delta, and around the world, that have suffered environmental damage as the result of business activity, may be able to sue their parent companies, where these are based in London.
This would be a new and important route to justice. Ideally these cases would be dealt with within the Nigerian justice system. However, the frustrations of the legal system in Nigeria are one of the reasons why the communities in Bille and Ogale have sought compensation abroad.
Oil spill justice in Nigeria
Bille and Ogale are in Rivers State, in the heart of Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region.
Pollution from oil spills over many years has devastated these communities. The spills in Ogale, which is part of the Ogoniland area, are documented in a major report published in 2011 by the UN Environment Programme. The report tested groundwater in Ogoniland and found, for example, that benzene levels in one area were 900x the safe limit provided by the World Health Organization.
Seeking compensation abroad may prove successful for Bille and Ogale. If it is, it’s more likely to also be an option for other communities that have suffered major spills in Nigeria.
An advantage of seeking compensation abroad is it can help focus international attention on corporate behaviour in Nigeria, and the frequent inability of its domestic justice system to compensate people that have had their livelihood, environment, and health damaged by oil spills.
If Nigeria strengthens environmental regulation and enforcement as a result of cases like the one under consideration in London – and if communities are able to secure compensation from companies in Nigeria as a result of decisions abroad – this is to be welcomed.
Yet, the reality is that international legal action often requires access to lawyers and finances that’s not feasible for the majority of cases, which may relate to relatively small spills. It’s also only been possible to take the legal case this far in England because there is a legal parent entity here, which may not be the case if other companies were concerned instead.
Nigeria must find a way to remove the social, political, and practical obstacles for local communities seeking compensation for environmental damage.
At SDN, our environmental work focuses on how to prevent and respond to oil pollution in the Niger Delta.
We recently published a report examining the challenges of the oil spill compensation system, and outlining steps Nigeria could take to address them.
We have also explored approaches to monitoring oil theft in the region – a major problem which contributes to the pollution communities face – and trained environmental monitors in oil spill identification and assessment. We support these environmental monitors to report spills to the key environmental regulator, the Nigerian National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency.
And we are working with others to provide independent monitoring of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP). This is the major environmental clean-up initiative launched by the Nigerian government in response to the UN report on pollution in Ogoniland.
HYPREP, which has seen long delays, is a symbol of whether the Nigerian government can effectively address the legacy of environmental damage from the oil industry in the Niger Delta.
It must succeed.
Further background on the English Supreme Court case is available at https://www.leighday.co.uk/News/2019/July-2019/Supreme-Court-grants-permission-to-appeal-to-Niger.