Battling Big Oil How Four Nigerian Villagers Took Shell to Court
Four Nigerian villagers from the Niger River delta have challenged mighty Shell in a Dutch court. They complain that the oil giant has caused environmental devastation and ruined their homes. A verdict in the unprecedented case is expected on Wednesday.
Royal Dutch Shell CEO Peter Voser likes to talk about the good deeds his company performs worldwide. "Sustainable development and social performance is absolutely key in the way we do our business," says Voser, a Swiss national. The head of Shell feels a duty to pursue such noble objectives as observing human rights and protecting the environment.
Not everyone affected by his global business, however, would agree that he is particularly successful. Take, for example, Eric Dooh, a Nigerian.
Earlier this January, he once again returned to his fish ponds, or at least to what was left of them after they were exposed to Shell's oil in the Niger delta. This was once Dooh's home. It was where his father taught him how to fish. He learned to catch crabs and tilapia, and how to find his way back to his village, Goi, guiding his canoe through the shallow waters of the mangrove-lined courses of the waterways and channels. It is located in Ogoniland, about an hour's drive southeast of the city of Port Harcourt.
The village no longer exists. "The fish are gone," says Dooh. After the fish disappeared, the people gradually left Goi. They were driven out by a large oil spill from a Shell pipeline. It happened more than eight years ago, but the lagoons and fish basins are still coated with black oil. In Goi, it smells as if you were filling up your gas tank on a freshly tarred road.
It is for that reason that Dooh, 44, has filed a lawsuit against Shell, not in Nigeria but in the Netherlands, where the company is headquartered. "I want them to clean this up properly," he says. On Wednesday, Dooh will appear before the district court in The Hague for the delivery of the verdict, together with three other fishermen who joined the suit and with supporters from the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
They will be facing an armada of lawyers. Shell is a powerful entity, and not just in the Netherlands, with $470 billion (350 billion) in annual sales, 90,000 employees and 43,000 filling stations in more than 80 countries. Experts estimate that the multinational corporation earns about $1.8 billion in profits annually with its Nigerian oil wells alone. For Shell, both money and reputation are on the line, and its attorneys have tried to block the trial for four years.
Largely Immune to Lawsuits
Ultimate responsibility, says Shell, lies with the local subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), which is involved in a joint venture with the Nigerian government. But the court agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that strategic decisions for the African country are made at Shell headquarters in The Hague.
No matter how the case turns out, the fact that a major corporation is being sued for the first time in a European court for environmental damage in a developing country will have consequences. Until this suit, energy companies had seemed largely immune to lawsuits from the developing countries where they produce their oil and gas. Dutch judges could choose to set an example in the Shell case -- as well as creating a legal debt of sorts. In the future, people who live in countries where European companies benefit from a lack of legal enforcement may be granted recourse to assert their rights.
In Nigeria, the legal situation isn't even that bad, at least in theory. The Nigerian constitution includes protections for water and soil. Petroleum laws stipulate "fair and adequate" compensation after oil spills.
Many legal experts and non-governmental organizations hold that this even applies to cases of sabotage, which are still widespread in the Niger delta, even though many of today's rebels are more interested in business than politics.
Some tap into pipelines and operate illegal refineries. Others have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in amnesty funds and spend their days lounging in luxury hotels or provide armed guards to protect the pipelines that they used to blow up. To its credit, Shell has also agreed to clean up spills caused by acts of sabotage.
But what good are laws and promises in a poverty-stricken country that earns a fortune from the oil business, while two thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 a day? Nigeria is considered one of the most corrupt countries on earth. While its citizens have almost no access to clean drinking water, each of its 109 senators is paid an annual salary of about $1.5 million. In such a country, whether something is considered "clean" or not is often just a matter of money.
The negotiations between the oil companies and the leaders of the affected villages are often held in secret, and "without any formal court action being involved," according to a report by Amnesty International. To make the deals seem legitimate, the affected villages later receive a large number of receipts from the companies hired to do the cleanup. The four plaintiffs received 27 of these reports. In some of them, not even the date of the leak was correct.
Bopp van Dessel is familiar with the paper battles. He headed Shell's environmental studies department in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. "One Greenpeace report was more effective than writing 40 'impact assessment reports' for Shell," he says. In Goi, someone named "Nwin Dooh" had signed documents confirming that the cleanup activities had been performed. "It's a fictitious name. That person doesn't exist," says Eric Dooh.
Shell was unwilling to comment on the matter, as it was on many other questions SPIEGEL asked. For the oil multinational, the cleanup in Goi ended in 2007 as noted in the cleanup reports. According to the company's website, the affected villages were as good as clean.
Mene Tomii, 79, still remembers when the drilling companies first arrived, and how he rubbed his hands together with glee when the first oil bubbled from the ground in 1958. Tomii is one of the kings of the region. He arrives in a brightly waxed, slightly dented black Mercedes. Back then, he says, Shell had summoned the villages chiefs to a meeting in a Methodist church.
"If you're lucky, we will find oil under your land, and then you'll be set for life," the Shell managers promised, Tomii says. He can still hear their promises today. "What they eventually paid, if anything, was one shilling in compensation for each tree that was used for economic gain." But the business boomed, and today the Dutch-British company has been extracting petroleum from Nigerian soil for more than 54 years.
Oozing into the Delta
Some 9,000 kilometers (5,590 miles) of pipelines were laid in the bush to transport the oil. In some places, Shell didn't even bother to bury them.
In 2011 alone, there were 181 leaks from the often antiquated and porous lines. Even Shell admits that there have been some maintenance problems. The company blames the majority of the accidents, including the 2004 Goi disaster, on sabotage.
In the last 50 years, an estimated 1.5 million tons of Shell's oil have leaked into the river delta, an amount corresponding to nearly one Exxon Valdez accident per year. Environmentalists estimate that about 77,000 liters a day are still oozing into the delta today.
The United Nations has now joined the ranks of critics of the oil companies and of the Nigerian government. A 2011 study documents the poisoning of groundwater in the region. In a village occupied by the Ogoni people near a pipeline, people were drinking water contaminated with cancer-causing benzene -- in concentrations 900 times above the threshold established by the World Health Organization.
Eric Dooh began to feel the side effects of oil production as a young boy. "I knew at an early age what oil spills were, and that the explosions around us had to do with the exploration of oil fields." After one detonation in 1987, his father's chicken barn collapsed, killing a thousand animals. Again and again, oil could be seen bubbling from nearby Shell pipelines. The family's three large fishponds and dozens of spawning ponds were also constantly filling up with the black oil. People started getting eczema.
- Part 1: How Four Nigerian Villagers Took Shell to Court
- Part 2: Blaming Theft