Royal Dutch Shell is meeting with lawyers representing Nigerian communities impacted by two spills that sent 500,000 barrels of oil into the Niger Delta region over a period of months in 2008.
Shell has already acknowledged that the leaks occurred, but hasn’t been so willing to accept the extent of the damages claimed by those living in the area. In turn, the company has denied compensation for thousands of Nigerians whose water and fish have become tainted with oil.
While Nigeria’s robust oil resources were seen as a beacon of hope for the nation’s population, the story hasn’t played out in the locals’ favor.
According to the International Energy Agency, Nigeria has an oil reserve of 37 billion barrels. Standard Bank estimates that the nation’s oil revenue topped $6 trillion over the last 50 years. Despite this, 70 percent of Nigerians still live below the poverty line.
According to Amnesty International, the 2008 oil spills devastated the local fishing community, a livelihood for many in the area. For those who rely on local fish for food, health risks have skyrocketed. According to a United Nations Environmental Program report, petroleum hydrocarbons, a byproduct of oil spills, can enter the body through the consumption of contaminated fish, water and soil.
A team of oil experts working on behalf of affected communities determined that 500,000 barrels of oil were spilled, but Shell has yet to accept the estimate. The company has also repeatedly claimed the spill was a result of sabotage, an assertion disputed by outside organizations.
The company’s 2012 sustainability report, which is available to the public, claims that only 26,500 barrels of oil were spilled in the Niger Delta, and that 95 percent of the spill was caused by sabotage.
A conclusion that sabotage caused the spill would rid the company of its obligation to clean up the impacted communities.
It’s the legitimacy of that claim that’s at the heart of the dispute.
In 2011, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth filed a complaint with the Netherlands National Contact Point, the organization that oversees environmental and humanitarian guidelines for multinational corporations. The complaint argued that Shell was using misleading information to justify its sabotage claims.
“The complainants are concerned that Shells use of inaccurate and misleading figures on sabotage has serious negative consequences for the communities of the Niger Delta,” the complaint states.
After failed mediation attempts with Shell and a prolonged investigation, the Netherlands National Contact Point issued a statement this month that declared that Shell’s allegations were in fact based on flawed evidence.
Shell isn’t willing yet to give up on its claims. In an interview with The Guardian, Shell spokesman Jonathan French defended the company’s petroleum development company, SPDC.
“Any spill is a serious concern, and SPDC staff and contractors are working hard to eliminate operational spills. Unfortunately the high incidence of oil theft and illegal refining in the Niger Delta exacerbates the problem and has a devastating impact on the environment. This criminality is the real tragedy of the Niger Delta,” he said. “SPDC regrets that some NGOs continue to take a campaigning approach rather than focusing on on-the-ground solutions that bring societal benefits.”
Even so, Shell is engaged in talks with lawyers representing 15,000 people in the Niger Delta who are suing for millions in compensation. Negotiations are taking place in London, and while Shell has agreed to meet with the lawyers, the issue could go to trial in 2014.
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