Appeal proceedings begin in Milieudefensie vs. Shell legal case

Amsterdam/The Hague, 7 October 2014 – Today marks the beginning of appeal proceedings in the legal case started by Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) and four Nigerian farmers in 2008, charging that Shell is responsible for damage caused by oil leaking from its pipelines in Nigeria.

Following the decision by the court in The Hague in January 2013, Milieudefensie and three of the four Nigerian plaintiffs have decided to appeal the verdict. Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria has also filed an appeal. Today the parties will file their written complaints with the court for the appeal.

On 30 June of this year, the court decided in a pre-trial review of the case (which has now been going on for more than six years) that the appeal should be handled in phases: today Milieudefensie and the Nigerian plaintiffs have filed their complaints against the decision of the court in 2011 to dismiss their demand to examine Shell documents (the so-called exhibition incident). Shell in turn is filing a complaint against the court’s acceptance of competence in 2009: the company believes that the Dutch court is competent to rule on the claim against the Shell parent company in the Netherlands, but not against Shell Nigeria. On 9 December the parties will respond to each other’s complaints in writing and on 12 March 2015 the parties will enter their pleas concerning the exhibition incident and the court’s competence. The substantive proceedings can only continue after the court has ruled on these.

Shell Headquarters in the Netherlands as guilty as its Nigerian subsidiary

Geert Ritsema, head of the Energy and Natural Resources Campaign at Milieudefensie states, ‘We want the court to rule that Shell must release its maintenance records for the leaking pipelines. Shell continues to claim that the leakages were caused by sabotage, but we want to show that the pipelines were old and poorly maintained, making them susceptible to oil leaks. We also want access to the documents which show that Shell’s Headquarters in the Netherlands, Royal Dutch Shell, closely supervises its subsidiary in Nigeria, and is thus responsible for the decisions made there. Currently only Shell Nigeria has been found guilty in only one case, but Shell Headquarters in the Netherlands determines the company’s policies and is therefore equally guilty.’

Whether the substantive proceedings will be continued depends on the verdict following the pleas in March 2015. If so, the court will tackle the verdict of January 2013: at that time Shell Nigeria was found guilty of negligence in one of the three pollution cases, a verdict it is appealing. In the other two cases the court ruled that Shell could not be held liable for the pollution originating from its own pipelines. Milieudefensie is appealing this decision.

Geert Ritsema explains, ‘It is terrible that this case has been dragging on for so long. In the meantime the plaintiffs and thousands of other people in the Niger Delta have been living for many years in an area saturated with Shell’s oil. Water, agricultural land, fishing ponds: everything is polluted. The three leakages in our case represent just the tip of the iceberg; leakages happen daily. Over the course of the years more oil has been leaked than in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. That is being cleaned up. What we hope to achieve is that Shell in Nigeria will adhere to international environmental standards, so that people in Nigeria don’t have to pay with their lives for our addiction to fossil fuels.’

UNEP report implementation

Meanwhile, the Delta’s residents are still waiting for the recommendations of the 2011 UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) report to be implemented. Following extensive investigation, in this report the UN advised that the crisis should be resolved. Shell and the Nigerian government, named in the report as the major responsible parties, have been pointing fingers at each other for years, but have failed to follow through. Twice this year Milieudefensie, along with other environmental and development organizations, have spoken to Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen about the situation in the Niger Delta. Geert Ritsema states, ‘We urged the minister to visit the affected Niger Delta during her trip to western Africa last summer and to urge Shell and the Nigerian government to quickly implement the recommendations of the UNEP report. We consider it a positive sign that she did this. The Netherlands now has a crucial role – and rightfully so – in bringing together the parties responsible for the oil pollution and urging them to clean it up, as well as to implement the United Nations recommendations.’

Yesterday in Sri Lanka at the biennial general meeting of Friends of the Earth International, an international network of environmental organizations to which Milieudefensie belongs, a resolution was passed by environmental organizations from more than 60 nations proposing that Shell 'should be forced to carry out the recommendations of the UNEP report and to clean up its oil pollution in the Niger Delta.