Frequently asked questions

Friends of the Earth NL has started a legal case against Shell, jointly with four residents of the Niger Delta, with the aim of restoration of the damage done to the area’s nature, fish ponds and agricultural lands, and to provide compensation. Answers to many questions on the case can be found here.

1. Who are the victims of the oil pollution?
2. Why is there so much oil pollution in Nigeria?
3. Why is the spilled oil not cleaned up properly?
4. Why is the pollution Shell’s responsibility?
5. Why Shell and not the other oil companies in Nigeria?
6. Isn’t corruption in Nigeria not the real reason for the problems?
7. Why are only four farmers involved in the legal case?
8. Why haven’t the plaintiffs brought their cases to the Nigerian court?
9. Could all Nigerians who have suffered damages start legal cases in The Hague in the future?
10. What will the legal cases achieve for the villagers?
11. Do you think you will win the case?
12. But the case was settled, wasn’t it? Didn’t Shell pay millions of euro to the Nigerian farmers?

1. Who are the victims of the oil pollution?

More than 30 million people live in the Niger Delta, the region in Nigeria with the most oil reserves. Although the oil under their feet is worth many billions, the majority of the region’s residents live in poverty.

Many of these 30 million people have become poorer and unhealthier as a result of oil pollution. Most people are dependent on crops from their fields or orchards, their fishing ponds or gathering forest products. Widespread oil pollution has made this difficult or impossible for millions of people.

In many places, oil pollution has led to severely polluted ground and surface water, the main water source for many. Drinking this water makes people sick, but bottled water is too expensive for many people.

So far, eleven million of barrels of oil have been spilled in the Delta, twice the amount that was spilled during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. New spills still occur weekly.

2. Why is there so much oil pollution in Nigeria?

Both theft and poor maintenance are major reasons for the spills. It cannot be said for certain how much damage is caused by theft and how much by wear, because no reliable records are kept on the causes.

However, it has been established that Shell trivializes cases of poor maintenance while it inflates cases of sabotage and theft. During a legal case in England, it was revealed that Shell had withheld for years information about a pipeline that was in critical need of replacement, resulting in two major spills in 2008 and 2009 in the village of Bodo.

Furthermore, Shell has the legal obligation to adequately protect its pipelines from sabotage. Evidence is available, however, which shows that Shell often does not provide protection or does so inadequately.

In regions where Shell personnel are not allowed to go because it is unsafe for them, Shell pumps oil through old, worn-out pipelines with no consideration of the serious risks for area residents.

3. Why is the spilled oil not cleaned up properly?

Shell hires non-qualified people to clean up the oil, with improper instructions. UNEP, the United Nations Environmental Program, concluded after a thorough investigation that Shell’s clean-up methods are completely inadequate.

This investigation also showed that leaked oil often has penetrated to a depth of five metres into the ground and leaks into the groundwater – whereas Shell’s clean-up methods consist of digging up the top layer of earth, piling it up and setting it on fire.

Thus, most of the spilled oil remains for decades in the land and in the water of the Niger Delta.

4. Why is the pollution Shell’s responsibility?

In the lawsuit that Milieudefensie and the four Nigerian farmers have brought against Shell, according to our lawyers, the spills are the result of wear – deterioration of the pipelines. Shell is legally responsible for this kind of spill, because it is obliged to prevent or repair the deterioration.

Spills also occur that are beyond Shell’s legal liability, mostly as the result of sabotage or theft. In those cases Shell has the obligation to clean up the spilled oil, but by law the company is not required to compensate victims financially. However, Shell could also prevent sabotage in most cases, with proper security and by building up a good relationship with the local people, something that Shell often neglects to do.

5. Why Shell and not the other oil companies in Nigeria?

We are calling on Shell to take its responsibility in the first place because it is a Dutch company. Furthermore, Shell is the largest foreign oil company in the joint venture producing oil in the Niger Delta, in which Total and Agip among others are also represented. As operator of the joint venture, Shell is responsible for the day-to-day oil production operations, maintenance, etc.

6. Isn’t corruption in Nigeria not the real reason for the problems?

Corruption is a major problem for Nigerians. The government earns billions on oil production but local residents of the Niger Delta hardly receive any benefits from this at all.

Shell cannot end corruption in Nigeria, but Shell could improve its own conduct. Frequently, the company does not adhere to Nigerian law, international environmental standards or even its own environmental standards and business principles. If it did, most of the spills would be prevented and Shell would clean up the pollution properly. Corruption or not, the Niger Delta would be a lot better off.

7. Why are only four farmers involved in the legal case?

Because in the Dutch legal system, individuals can only start a lawsuit if they have suffered concrete damage through the ‘culpable actions’ of another. Culpable action means that the party could have acted properly but neglected to do so.

The four Nigerian farmers who have undertaken the lawsuit with us have suffered demonstrable damage from Shell. That is why we are taking legal action with these four individuals. If one or more of these four individuals wins their case, it will then become easier for other people in the affected villages to bring claims for damages against Shell as well.

8. Why haven’t the plaintiffs brought their cases to the Nigerian court?

Two of them did bring their cases to a Nigerian court but the legal processes in their own country are lengthy and not transparent, so Shell Nigeria is able to constantly intervene in the process.

In Nigeria, there are many options for multinationals with sufficient funds to hire expensive lawyers to delay legal proceedings indefinitely. Moreover, our plaintiffs have more faith in the independence of the courts in the Netherlands and therefore in a fair trial.

9. Could all Nigerians who have suffered damages start legal cases in The Hague in the future?

If these four farmers ultimately win their cases, it is expected to lead to more cases. But a flood of cases is not likely. It is extremely time-consuming and very expensive to take a large oil company to court. We especially hope that Shell and other oil companies will become more careful and make more of an effort to prevent damage to people and the environment, because they know that they could be taken to court in Europe.

10. What will the legal cases achieve for the villagers?

People in the villages want to live a good and healthy life without the threat of sickness and poverty caused by oil pollution. That’s why the key demands in the legal case are for better maintenance and better security of the oil installations.

Oil pollution has robbed the Nigerian plaintiffs of a good, healthy and safe life. Nothing can live in their fishing ponds, their orchards have died and nothing can grow on their agricultural lands any longer. That is why they want compensation.

The court could also force Shell to carry out another clean-up and to do it properly this time, so that the villagers can again live as they used to.

11. Why do you think you can win the case?

We have already had a few victories. The fact that the court has taken on our case is already a milestone. Furthermore, in the first instance Shell was ordered by the court to pay compensation to Friday Alfred Akpan from Ikot Ada Udo. Naturally we hope that the court will uphold this verdict in the appeal.

Shell has committed serious wrongdoings in all three villages. We believe, therefore, that Shell will be found liable.

12. But the case was settled, wasn’t it? Didn’t Shell pay millions of euro to the Nigerian farmers?

That news, reported in January 2015, concerned a case involving 15,000 residents of the Nigerian village of Bodo, who brought Shell before an English court. The verdict could set a precedent for our case. In the Bodo case, it was revealed that Shell had for years withheld information concerning the pipeline: the pipeline in question had been in critical need of replacement for more than ten years. This is the same pipeline that also runs through Goi, one of the villages in our case.

Our lawsuit against Shell Nigeria

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