After decades of blaming anyone else for the ecological disaster in the Niger Delta, Shell has been forced to point the finger at itself. Why else would the company make an out-of-court settlement of £55m and admit to telling lies during the course of the legal process?
Shell’s confession has come much too late for many Bodo residents who have had their fishing and farming livelihoods destroyed by oil spills and have had to exist with the effects of pollution and grinding poverty arising from this. The compensation, to be shared between 15,600 individuals and the community, is only a step towards justice - it will not restore the heavily polluted oil creeks and swamps to the state they were in before.
Because of the oil spills Bodo fishmermen are having to travel to further to catch less. Photo: Amnesty International
Why should anyone believe Shell again?
Our research into Shell’s investigation of oil spills in the Delta reveals a catalogue of bad practice, denial, obfuscation and misinformation by the oil company. While corrosion of pipes and equipment failure are a significant cause of the majority of spills, they have never been properly addressed. The company’s claims that illegal activity in the Niger Delta in the form of sabotage and tapping into pipelines is the cause of most oil pollution have been thoroughly discredited.
Now Shell has finally admitted that it got its ‘facts’ wrong and underestimated the amount of oil spilt in the Bodo cases.
During the legal process Shell was forced to reveal that it had been aware, at least since 2002, that most of its pipelines were old and that some sections contained “major risk and hazard”. Despite having had this information for years before the Bodo leaks, Shell denied that its ageing infrastructure was a factor and took no apparent action to rectify this.
One of the reasons that Shell has managed to get away with such conduct is that it dominates the process of investigating and reporting on its own oil spills. Years of bad practice with regard to investigations has left communities highly distrustful of the process and outcomes. Now that Shell’s conduct has been exposed in the UK courts, it will be much more difficult for the company to rely on the same pretexts and excuses.
The oil spill in Bodo in 2008. Photo: CEHRD
Closing one book and opening another
While Shell will do everything it can to close the book on the negligence and misinformation accompanying the Bodo spill, the pressure on the company to come clean with the facts and to clean up its contamination across all of the Niger Delta will intensify.
There are other communities waiting in the wings to have their day in court. And there are lawyers only too well aware that the systemic failings exposed in the Bodo case are a characteristic feature of the company’s operating model.
The Bodo case has created a landmark in so far as it has undermined some of the key pillars of Shell’s attempts to defend itself from culpability for oil spills in the Delta.
For a start, the company can no longer take the moral high ground by pretending that it has done everything that can reasonably be expected to avoid oil spills from its facilities. Perhaps more significantly, the judge in a preliminary hearing concluded that the company has to take precautions to protect its pipelines in a way that would normally stop thieves from causing the damage that leads to oil spills – effectively nullifying Shell’s claim that they are not responsible for sabotaged pipes.
After decades of neglect, Shell has put itself in a situation where it may have to show in future court cases that it has taken adequate precautions to prevent oil spills, by for example installing tamper proof equipment, putting in place sensors and valves to detect spills, and shutting off oil flow in event of a breach, heeding warnings of particular attacks or thefts, and ensuring pipelines do not get so corroded that they are easy to tap into.
While the compensation awarded is important to the affected communities, the wider ramifications of the Bodo case are much more significant in moving us closer to the truth and helping to bring about greater accountability in future for Shell’s actions - this is why Amnesty International puts such a strong emphasis on access to judicial remedy for victims of corporate abuses. We want to see many more opportunities for affected communities, such as the Bodo fishermen, to have their day in court.