Polluted stream at Ogale/PHOTO: Leigh Day

Nigerian communities file claims against Shell for devastating oil spills 

Over 13,000 residents from the Ogale and Bille communities in Nigeria file claims against Shell for devastating oil spills

  • The group register in the Ogale claim has now been filed and 11,317 Ogale individual claims have been issued at the High Court. Together with the existing Bille individual claims, overall 13,652 people are bringing individual claims against Shell.
  • Shell has now filed a legal Defence in which they claim that the communities do not have the legal right to enforce clean-up against Shell.
  • The Ogale and Bille communities in the Niger Delta have been engaged in litigation against Shell for seven years. The severe oil pollution in the communities is ongoing and no clean-up has taken place. There have been 55 new oil spills in the Ogale community since September 2011.

The legal case against Shell on behalf of the Bille and Ogale communities from the Niger Delta has taken a significant step forward following the filing at the High Court in London of the Ogale group claim register. The group claims register confirms that 11,317 people and 17 institutions (including churches and schools) from Ogale are seeking compensation for loss of livelihoods and damage against the oil giant. These claims are in addition to the 2,335 Bille individual claims which were issued at the High Court in 2015.

In addition to the individual claims there are also two representative actions, one for each community, which seek compensation for damage to communally owned property. This remedy would benefit all members of the communities living with the chronic pollution, even where they have not sustained individual losses. In Ogale the total population is around 40,000 people and in Bille it is around 15,000 people.

The communities have had their way of life devastated by the spills and are asking for Shell to clean up their oil and compensate them for their loss of livelihoods as their ability to farm and fish has been largely destroyed.

The claims which have now been filed provide detail as to the nature of the harm the residents of Ogale and Bille have suffered and continue to suffer. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland reported, after a three-year detailed study, how the Ogoni people were exposed to severe oil contamination on a daily basis, impacting their water sources, air quality, and farmland. UNEP recommended that urgent steps should be taken to ensure the largest terrestrial clean-up operation in history and found that there was “an immediate danger to public health”. Shockingly, 12 years on, the communities remain polluted, no clean-up has occurred and their residents are still drinking from poisoned wells.

In Ogale, the emergency clean water system has not functioned for the past five years. The majority of the residents do not have access to clean water given that the groundwater and aquifer under the Ogale community is severely polluted.

In Bille, the community’s drinking water is also polluted and the oil has killed most of the fish and shellfish in the rivers, leaving Bille’s fishing population without a source of food or income. This has caused a fundamental shift in the way of life of the Bille community; a people who were previously heavily focused on fishing are no longer able to fish.

Now the group register has been filed at court, the next stage in the case is for a case management hearing to be set in Spring 2023, ahead of the full trial which is likely to occur the following year.

The Bille and Ogale communities have been engaged in litigation with Shell since 2015. On 12 February 2021, the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was “a good arguable case” that Shell plc, the UK parent company, was legally responsible for systemic pollution caused by its Nigerian subsidiary, SPDC. The case is now proceeding to trial to determine whether Shell’s parent company in London, as well as its Nigerian subsidiary SDPC, is legally responsible for the harm caused to the communities in Nigeria.

Shell’s Defence

Since the Supreme Court hearing in 2021 Shell has filed its legal Defence to the claims in which they argue that it has no legal liability for any of the pollution. It argues, among other things, that:

  • The communities have no legal standing to enforce clean up against Shell.
  • Many of the specific spills in Ogale and Bille took place more than five years before the claim were brought and, despite the lack of clean up, the communities are barred from seeking compensation for those spills.
  • Shell cannot be held accountable for any spills caused by ‘bunkering’, regardless of whether it could foresee the bunkering and failed to take steps to prevent it.
  • Despite the findings of the Supreme Court in Okpabi v. Shell, that on the evidence the parent company cannot be liable for any pollution arising from SPDC’s operations.

If successful, these legal arguments, will have far reaching consequences. The implications of these legal arguments are that oil impacted communities in Nigeria will be unable to seek clean-up of their environments. In addition, communities would be unable to claim compensation for loss of livelihoods unless they are able to prove the damage was caused by operational failure within five years of the date of issuing the claim. For most Nigerian communities living with legacy pollution, that would essentially deprive them of any legal remedy against oil companies.

Shell announced in 2021 that it plans to leave the Niger Delta and to sell its onshore oilfields and assets after 80 years of highly profitable operations. However, Shell has not explained whether it plans to address the widespread and systemic pollution to Nigerian communities caused by its operations over many years.

Daniel Leader, partner at law firm Leigh Day, said:

“This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of oil and gas companies. It appears that Shell is seeking to leave the Niger Delta free of any legal obligation to address the environmental devastation caused by oil spills from its infrastructure over many decades. At a time when the world is focused on “the just transition”, this raises profound questions about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.”

Matthew Renshaw, partner at law firm Leigh Day said:

“The Ogale and Bille communities simply want Shell to clean up its oil and compensate them for loss of the destruction of their environments. Instead of engaging with these communities Shell has fought them tirelessly through the courts for the past seven years. At a time when Shell is making unprecedented profits it is high time that it addressed the ongoing pollution caused to these communities by its operations. The question must be asked whether Shell simply plans to leave the Niger Delta without addressing the environmental disaster which has unfolded under its watch?”

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