The lawyers of four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, who are pressing charges against Shell over the oil pollution in three villages in the Niger Delta, have obtained confidential records that shed new light on the working methods of the Shell oil company.
On the basis of these documents, the lawyers are again asking the court in The Hague for access to additional internal Shell documents, which they want to use to prove that Shell head office in The Hague is liable for the oil leaks that have been occurring in the Nigerian villages. In September 2011, a similar request for access was turned down by the courts.
The lawyers have obtained the Design and Engineering Practice documents, written by Shell in the Netherlands. These documents describe in detail how subsidiaries of Shell Netherlands are to build and maintain their facilities in other countries, such as Nigeria.
Geert Ritsema, campaign leader of Energy & Natural Resources at Friends of the Earth Netherlands, said: “Up to this point, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), the Shell head office in the Netherlands, has maintained that its operating companies across the world all work under their own authority and that therefore the head office cannot be held liable for any damage brought about by the actions of its subsidiaries. These documents prove that Shell oil company is actually a meticulously managed company. Shell Nigeria works according to guidelines as established by the headquarters in the Netherlands. That means that if damage has been wrought in Nigeria – and there is no doubt that it has – the head office here is responsible.”
In January of this year, the court in The Hague delivered its first verdict in the case filed by Friends of the Earth and the four farmers. The Shell subsidiary in Nigeria has been found guilty of oil pollution in one of the three villages being cited in the case. The company must compensate farmer Friday Elder Akpan from Ikot Ada Udo for the pollution of his land. Shell appealed against this verdict. The court judged there was insufficient proof of Shell’s culpability regarding the leaks from Shell pipelines in the other two villages. Additionally the court ruled that the Shell head office in The Hague can in no way be held accountable for the leakages from the pipelines in the Niger Delta. Friends of the Earth and the farmers appealed against these two verdicts in May.
The new request for access to documents, being submitted by the lawyers of Friends of the Earth and the Nigerians, is the first step of this appeal. The lawyers think that with the new documents in hand they will be able to prove that the plaintiffs have legitimate interest in acquiring access to other internal records of Shell. These could then be used to provide further evidence of the liability of the Shell head office. In September 2011, the court denied a similar request for access. Once the court has ruled on the request for access, the second stage of the appeal will commence. The first sitting in the appeal case is expected in early 2014.
Friends of the Earth and the Nigerians challenged Shell in The Hague court in May 2008. The court case is unique because it is the first time that a Dutch multinational is being challenged in a court in its own country for environmental damage inflicted in another country. Friends of the Earth and the farmers are suing Shell Nigeria (Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria – SPDC, a Shell subsidiary) as well as the Dutch parent company/multinational Royal Dutch Shell for oil pollution in three villages in the Niger Delta: Goi, Oruma and Ikot Ada Udo. Their demand is that Shell cleans up the oil pollution in the villages, compensates the farmers for damages suffered and ensures better maintenance of the oil pipelines.
Geert Ritsema added: “Meanwhile, the plaintiffs are still living with the consequences of the leaks. In Ikot Ada Udo, Friday Elder Akpan is waiting for compensation, in Goi the people are still living surrounded by sticky black oil residue and in Oruma fishing in the creeks polluted by Shell oil is still impossible. New leaks are still occurring on a daily basis in the Delta because Shell is not taking its responsibility. This is impossible to accept for the people living there.”
Meanwhile, compensation talks have begun in Nigeria between lawyers for Royal Dutch Shell and for 15,000 Nigerian villagers who say their livelihoods were destroyed by oil spills from pipelines operated by the company.
The Nigerians launched a suit against Shell at the High Court in London in March 2012, seeking millions of dollars in compensation for two oil spills in 2008 that polluted the waterways of the Bodo fishing communities in the Niger Delta.
The legal action is being closely watched by the industry and by environmentalists for precedents that could have an impact on other big pollution claims against oil majors.
A vast maze of mangrove swamps and creeks, the Niger Delta is home to communities of subsistence farmers and fishermen living alongside the multi-billion-dollar oil industry.