Two communities on the Niger Delta have won the right to sue Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) in English courts over decades of oil pollution that has damaged rivers, coastal areas and farmland as well as health, The UK Supreme Court overruled a previous Appeal Court finding that there was no real issue to be tried.
Although Shell does not dispute the fact of the pollution, it had argued it could not be held responsible in English courts for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Co. (SPDC).
The communities of Ogale and Bille, with a combined population of more than 40,000 largely dependent upon fishing and farming, assert that RDS had a duty of care because it exercises significant control over material aspects of SPDC’s operations.
“This (February 2021) Supreme Court judgment gives real hope to the people of Ogale and Bille who have been asking Shell to clean up their oil for years. We hope that now, finally, Shell will act,” said Daniel Leader, partner of legal firm Leigh Day which represents the claimants.
“But it also represents a watershed moment in the accountability of multinational companies. Increasingly impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will significantly increase their ability to do so,” Day added.
RDS expressed its disappointment with the decision, implying that the oil spills at issue may have been the result of theft, criminal refining or sabotage, adding: “Regardless of the cause of a spill, SPDC cleans up and remediates. It also works hard to prevent these sabotage spills, by using technology, increasing surveillance and by promoting alternative livelihoods for those who might damage pipes and equipment.”
The villagers say they “have suffered systematic and ongoing oil pollution for years because of Shell’s operations in Nigeria, including the pollution of their drinking water”, and maintain there is no prospect of obtaining justice in Nigeria.
In its ruling, the UK Supreme Court cited a similar case in Zambia from 2019 involving the actions of mining company Verdanta.
The ruling is the second this year to find against Shell’s operations in Nigeria. At the end of January, the Dutch Court of Appeal in The Hague held RDS liable for the consequences of two oil leaks in the villages of Oruma and Goi that occurred in 2004/2005.
The court ruled that Shell failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the leaks were the result of sabotage and was therefore liable for the damage caused. Compensation will be determined in a subsequent process.
In the case of a third leak in the village of Ikot Ada Udo, sabotage was established. However, the matter of Shell’s liability remains open and the case continues.