Imagine turning on your kitchen tap and, instead of clear, clean water, you get brown water that smells like petrol. That’s the reality for thousands of people in the Bille and Ogale communities of Rivers State, Nigeria.
Like many towns, villages, and communities in the crude oil-rich Niger Delta region of Africa’s fourth-largest oil producer, regular oil spills have caused untold damage to the environment.
People living in Bille and Ogale say they can no longer farm their lands nor fish from their waters due to the extensive pollution from oil spillage, and are being pushed further into hunger and poverty as a result.
According to almost 14,000 people from Bille and Ogale, this devastating pollution is the result of the activities of fossil fuel giant Shell — and the two communities are taking Shell to court in the UK, asking for Shell to clean up the pollution and compensate them for their loss of livelihoods.
At the same time people from the Ogale farming community lodged their claims against Shell at London’s high court in February, the oil giant was announcing $40 billion in profits for 2022 — its highest-ever annual profit and double the profits of the previous year. Meanwhile, Shell is also preparing to leave the Niger Delta after more than 80 years of operations, according to the Guardian.
Shell reportedly argues that the communities don’t have a legal standing in their efforts to force the oil giant to clean up; and that the communities can’t seek compensation for the spills, many of which happened five years before the claims were brought. It also says it can’t be held responsible for spills that it says are largely the result of oil being siphoned from its pipelines.
We spoke with Matthew Renshaw, partner at Leigh Day, the law firm representing the 13,652 claimants from the Bille and Ogale communities, about the importance of the case, how communities can seek justice against fossil fuel polluters, and the impact of such extensive environmental damage on these communities.
GC: What can you tell us about the case, what's happening, and what your involvement is?
Renshaw: There are two claims — we're representing two different communities. There's the Ogale community in River State and the Bille community, also in River State. We've been representing both communities since 2015 and we are Leigh Day, a law firm based in London that brings claims involving British multinationals.
I’ll give a quick snapshot of each community and how they are impacted.
The Ogale community is traditionally a farming community with some fishing as well. They've been impacted by multiple spills from about the early 1980s, or at least that's when Shell started reporting them. So well over 100 spills in and immediately around that community since the 1980s — with something like 50 spills in the past 10 years or so.
The community also has pipelines that run through the farmland, across the farmland, and through the town where people are living. There's also other infrastructure — a couple of manifolds (an arrangement of piping and/or valves designed to combine, distribute, control, and often monitor crude oil flow) and a flow station nearby.
The key allegations in the Ogale case are firstly, the impact on farmland. People who were largely (and sometimes entirely reliant) on farming for income and to feed their families are now finding that their farmlands have been impacted by all the oil pollution and are much less productive. Some people tell us they're unable to farm at all.
Additionally, contamination of the drinking water. This is possibly the key issue in Ogale. The UN did some testing on samples in Ogale and other regions in Ogoniland and produced a report in 2011. They found there was an emergency health situation because of the levels of hydrocarbon contamination of the drinking water (more than 900 times the World Health Organization guidelines).
Shell provided clean water for two or three years maybe, but now doesn't do that. So most people in that community get their water from either hand-dug wells or boreholes. I've been around the community. Most of the water coming out of the taps stinks of oil and hydrocarbons. Sometimes it appears to be visibly contaminated.
People who can afford to pay for water can buy clean water for drinking or for bathing and cooking. People who can't afford to buy water are having to use this contaminated water. So you have families, children, washing in water that smells of oil and is brown coming out of the taps. Some people even have to drink that water as well.
That strikes me as the most serious issue and it has potentially serious health implications. In summary, for Ogale, there's contamination of water and also the impact on livelihoods through the pollution of the farmland.
The Bille community is a riverine community, so it's kind of a series of small islands. The claims from Bille are in relation to oil spills between 2011 and 2013, when there were about 40 or 50 oil spills in Bille Creek. These spills are from Shell's infrastructure causing devastation of the mangrove forests there.
There’s been a huge die off of mangroves that the claimants say is because of those oil spills. Being a river island community, Bille was primarily a fishing community. So nearly everyone that fished for their livelihoods and sustenance to feed their families, and the local fishing industry, is now completely devastated as a result of the oil pollution.
It's led to a complete transformation of the way of life there. Where people were previously able to fish and generally provide for themselves, that has completely gone because of the oil pollution.
Because the water around Bille is still very polluted, you also get oil almost coming up to people's houses every time the tide comes up. You have oil seeping up through the ground of the islands there. So the people still living there are immersed in this polluted environment and exposed to it every day.
Some people have tried to leave the community and move to Port Harcourt (the Rivers State capital) or elsewhere, because it's hard to live a sustainable life in Bille.
We started the claim in 2015, for both communities. Shell objected and said the claims should be heard in the Nigerian courts. We argued that Shell Nigeria and also Shell Plc, based in London, is responsible in Nigerian law for the damage caused from the oil pollution and harm caused to the claimants.
In 2021, the Supreme Court of the UK ruled in the claimant's favor that there was a good arguable case that Shell Plc, the parent company in London, is responsible for the pollution that people are suffering.
What stories have you heard from the communities that particularly stand out for you?
One key area is health impacts. We spoke to a midwife from Ogale who said there's a lot more infant mortality now, lots of children are dying. There are problems in pregnancy and at birth that weren't there 20, 30, 40 years ago. That’s one area of health impacts where there have been some studies done in the Niger Delta, and oil pollution has been linked directly to infant mortality.
For me personally, the impacts I've noticed are from when I've been to people's houses and seen the state of the water and had them say to me: “Our children have just come out of washing in there.” I found that personally quite shocking.
It's the contrast between Shell over here, their record profits. You've got the executives here talking about their environmental commitments, their CSR, but the reality on the ground is ordinary people are being impacted in awful ways and don't have the chance to go somewhere else and live a different life.
That contrast between how Shell presents itself as a company, how it presents itself and the impact it's having. Particularly in the Niger Delta, where it's been operating so long, where there's chronic pollution in multiple communities because of oil spills from Shell's operations.
Why do you think this specific case is significant, and one that people globally should be paying attention to?
There was a recent case in the Dutch courts where the courts found that Royal Dutch Shell was responsible for not having proper equipment on the pipelines, and things like that, and Shell have since settled that case.
But I think this case and the other cases here are particularly significant because now Shell Plc is fully domiciled in London, and this is a test of whether the parent company is responsible for the pollution these communities in the Niger Delta are suffering.
I think if the court finds that the parent company is responsible, that will have really big implications. Also in terms of Shell's legacy in the Niger Delta with it looking to sell its onshore assets — and it’s openly saying this — and move out of the onshore Niger Delta operations. The question is, is it going to leave them in this condition?
Is Shell, having made billions and billions of pounds out of its Nigeria operations, going to ride off into the sunset, leaving a legacy of pollution, devastated lives, and a polluted area that cannot recover on its own?
One of the things our claims concern is Shell's obligations to clean up, and seeking clean up of these communities to a proper international standard. Shell is fighting against that.
Again, even though this case is only two communities (and there are many others that have been impacted), the outcome of this case could have implications for Shell's responsibilities to clean up more generally throughout the Niger Delta.
Equally, if the courts here are finding Shell does have responsibility and has to clean up, then you'd hope that will be taken on board by many other communities as well.
I think it's got impacts beyond Shell as well. It impacts other multinationals, particularly British multinationals, operating overseas. In terms of the clean transition and Shell exiting the Niger Delta, what legacy is it going to leave there? What is the condition of the Niger Delta going to be? Are they going to be left polluted, or is the polluter going to take some responsibility for setting that right before it leaves?
What are the laws guiding how companies like Shell have to protect, or at least not harm, the communities they operate in?
There's a really comprehensive suite of Nigerian laws about the ways in which companies should operate, specific laws on oil pipelines, the condition those should be in, how they should be operated, and so on. Really quite detailed guidance about what and how energy companies should operate.
There's also very specific rules about, for example, who has responsibility for cleaning up oil spills. The Nigerian law is very clear that the operator of the pipeline, which here is Shell Nigeria (SPDC), has responsibility for cleaning up oil from its infrastructure, whatever the cause of that oil spill. So even if the oil spill is caused by bunkering or sabotage, Shell has responsibility for cleaning that up.
So, in some ways, the laws are pretty clear and comprehensive. The issue is the implementation of those laws and holding the companies to account about adhering to the laws and the rules.
The issue isn't with the rules. The rules are pretty clear. But then you've got Shell operating pipelines that are 50+ years old and haven't been maintained nor are fit for purpose. So it's the enforcement of those rules and laws, that is where there's a big, big shortfall.
Are communities increasingly challenging these companies in court these days or has it always been a thing?
I think there's definitely more. I mean, the pollution of the Niger Delta through Shell's operations has obviously been a huge global business and human rights issue since the 90s — think back to MOSOP and Ken Saro-Wiwa. There’s also been lots of activity from Greenpeace, Amnesty, and other international organizations. In terms of legal cases, more communities and NGOs are learning that this is a possible way to try and get some accountability, to try and change the status quo.
I found in Nigeria that people's understanding of law and their legal rights is very, very good. It's a very high level even for people who maybe haven't had a lot of education or aren't literate. They still have a good understanding of law compared to many other places I've been where people won't know what a lawyer is. So I think there is an awareness people in [the Niger Delta] have of their legal rights and the potential to bring claims against companies when there's pollution and damage.
Previously, some communities would have felt quite powerless to do that. It’s very difficult to do. Even through local courts often there'll be reasons why that's very difficult for people to do. So people are probably more aware that this is a possible way to drive change and to get compensation and justice. So yeah, I think there's definitely been an increase in these sorts of cases — that's not just perception, that is the reality.