Shell’s tragic and toxic legacy in Nigeria
Nigeria’s oil industry and environmental impact[edit | edit source]
The history of oil production in Nigeria spans more than a century, since the first explorations began in 1908. Yet it would be almost 50 years before Shell-BP discovered an oil field at Oloibiri in the Niger Delta west Port Harcourt. The 2016 film release “Oloibiri” is based on the true story of Nigeria’s first venture into the oil industry, capturing the suffering of villagers based on its environmental and health impacts, but also the degree to which elite Nigerians and multinational corporations benefited from that wealth. To this day, conflict in the Niger Delta region continues over the failure to protect Nigerians from the catastrophic consequences of the industry, while neglecting to invest the profits in their development. The oil wealth fuels government and private-sector corruption as well as toxic environmental damage.
Shell continued exploration in the 1960s, both onshore and offshore. By 1970, as the regional Biafra civil war ended – a war driven in part by control over the oil wealth – global prices began to soar and the nation joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1971. The state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) was formed in 1977. Today, the NNPC holds a 55 percent share in a joint venture (JV) with Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), which in 2014 yielded 739,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boe/d) – about 80 percent of the JV output. Shell Nigeria also operates deepwater exploration, LNG and gas distribution companies.
While other multinational corporations including Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and Total operate joint ventures in Nigeria, it is Royal Dutch Shell that is implicated in toxic spills that may take 30 years to remediate – those that directly affect the indigenous Ogoni people, with their long and painful history of resistance.
The Ogoni, MOSOP and Ken Saro Wiwa[edit | edit source]
The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed in 1990 to protect the environment, way of life and right to self-determination of the Ogoni people. About a half million Ogoni lived in the Niger Delta at the time MOSOP was formed, a decision driven in part by oil resources. The organization was founded by the late Ken Saro Wiwa, a Nigerian author and activist who criticized oil companies and the government’s oil policy, and brought international attention to the Ogoni cause.
In 1993, about 300,000 Ogoni marched to demand a share in oil revenues that resulted in regional violence. In November 1995, following a trial by a military tribunal, Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were hanged in Port Harcourt. Prolonged and bitter conflict fueled the resentment against Shell, with the Ogoni campaigning for the total expulsion of Shell from Ogoniland, east of Port Harcourt. For their part, in 2009 Shell agreed to pay USD$15.5 million in settlement of a lawsuit alleging the company collaborated with Nigerian authorities in the deaths of Saro Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists. The case, initiated in 1996 by the Centre for Constitutional Rights, was widely hailed as a first step toward holding multinational firms accountable for human rights violations in collusion with country of origin.
In an era when Nigeria remained under a military dictatorship led by Sani Abacha, hundreds of Nigerians died and thousands were forced from their Ogoniland villages. MOSOP and the regional conflict caused enough disruption for Shell to suspend oil-related operations in 1993, but the damage was already done.
United Nations investigation and report[edit | edit source]
Years later, at the request of the Nigerian government, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) completed a comprehensive assessment of the environmental damage among the Ogoni, who had been subject to oil spills and oil well fires for decades. For 14 months, the UNEP team visited 200 locations, took 4,000 samples, surveyed 122 kilometers of pipeline, reviewed 5,000 medical records and connected with 23,000 community members for interviews and meetings. The long-anticipated report was released in 2011, with shocking findings. They include crusted soils from oil fires that occurred decades ago, surface water that still had an oil sheen almost 20 years later, and the destruction of mangrove vegetation and fish habitats. In 49 locations, petroleum hydrocarbons were found at a depth of five meters, a discovery that underscored the magnitude of the damage and complexity of cleanup.
The report, according to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner offered “a blueprint for how the oil industry—and public regulatory authorities-- might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond.” It also offered a sobering look at unfathomable damage, including drinking water that contained 900 times the World Health Organization standard for benzene, and crop damage and soil contamination far from the original spill or pipeline sites. At two thirds of the sites near industrial facilities, soil levels for toxins exceeded Nigeria’s environmental standards. All told, although the report found short-term improvements possible for some issues, a full remediation of Ogoniland will take 25 to 30 years.
Public health aftermath[edit | edit source]
The regional life expectancy at the time of the 2011 report was 50 years. Given the duration of oil industry activities in the region, the UNEP concluded that it was “a fair assumption that most members of the current Ogoniland community have lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives.”
That means chronic exposure to air, water and soil-contact contamination. Hydrocarbon contamination at seven wells were at least 1,000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard of 3 μg/l, and communities know the pollution is dangerous but have no alternative to clean water for household use.
Benzene levels in the air remain elevated, exposing people to a known carcinogen. Interviews with medical personnel found increased rates of respiratory disorders, including asthma and pneumonia; skin conditions, gastroenteritis, and suppressed immune systems believed to be caused by industrial toxins.
“The intention was that UNEP’s recommendations would be implemented to restore the devastated environment, on the one hand, and on the other, counteract the numerous environmental health issues that have for decades, plagued Ogoniland,” the study authors found. “Despite the seriousness of the situation, no significant resolution has occurred on the part of the government or the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) or Shell. To date, millions of Niger Delta residents particularly those living in the oil-bearing communities, continue to suffer severe consequences.”
There are now 832,000 people living in Ogoniland, yet 20 years after the death of Saro Wiwa, there is a reason why the remediation and restoration process has stalled: Who is going to pay for the cleanup?
Shell’s legal challenges[edit | edit source]
In January 2015, Shell compensated over 15,000 individuals for damages caused by the spills that ravaged the Bodo Creek and ruined the fishing livelihood of the Ogoni plaintiffs. The $86 million settlement included $55 million for the plaintiffs, and about $31 million for a community trust. Shell accepted liability and took responsibility for the spills. However, to date, Shell has yet to effectuate its clean up promise at these specific sites. In fact, the UNEP report found that at 10 of the 15 investigated sites where Shell said a full remediation was complete, the high contamination levels said otherwise.
Further, the Ogoniland history accounts for just one part of the damage to the Niger Delta. It’s hard to access good data, but according to a 2013 study published in the Nigerian Medical Journal, an estimated 1.5 million tons of crude oil – not counting refined product – has spilled since 1958, in more than 7,000 spill incidents that have affected 1,500 communities. Shell operations account for many of the cases.
In 2016, two new lawsuits on behalf of 40,000 Nigerians from Ogoniland were initiated against Shell in the United Kingdom. The London firm that handled the Bodo Creek case argued that Shell, incorporated in the UK, is accountable for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary. Moreover, the Nigerian courts cannot be trusted because they are too corrupt. Shell, however, said that its Nigerian entity is a party to the NNPC joint venture with the Nigerian government itself, and the case involves Nigerian plaintiffs. The High Court in London ruled in favor of Shell, limiting at least for now the possibility of holding global firms responsible in their countries of origin or incorporation for the damages they do to other lands.
Shell has promised to begin cleanup from the broken pipeline location at Bodo Creek – eight years after the spill came to light – with a scheduled start in April. In the meantime, the company faces new allegations of colluding with Nigerian government officials in a $1 billion corruption scandal dating to 2011. It’s the latest evidence to illustrate what little concern Shell has demonstrated for the people and environment of Ogoniland, Nigeria and the West African coast, and raise questions on if they ever will.