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UK court rules against N’Delta communities

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By Abraham Adekunle

The Supreme Court said the Nigerian claimants sued the multinational late.

Nigeria is one of the big exporters of crude oil in the world. In fact, most of the government’s foreign exchange earnings come from this industry. However, while the government plies this trade, the residents of the Niger Delta region, where this mineral is mined, bears the brunt of it. Oil spillage is one of the issues that multinationals such as Shell has been battling with. And while there has been calls and promises to clean up the region, nothing much has been done.

Locals lose their livelihoods to these spillages. They cannot farm, neither can they fish in the rivers. It is not uncommon for residents to find their rivers brimming with crude oil, rendering their fishing occupation useless. Because of this, these communities have teamed up for years and sued one of the multinational oil companies, Shell, in the United Kingdom, especially when many of the big players have announced that they would exit the region soon. The communities demanded that before they exit the region, the companies should pay any outstanding compensation for the environmental degradation they have caused.

Too late to file over a 2011 offshore spill.

A UK law firm had announced in February 2023 that claims had been filed on behalf of more than 11,000 people from the Ogale and Bille Communities in the Niger Delta region against Shell for compensation for loss of livelihoods and damage. The firm said that the claims say oil spills resulting from Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta have destroyed farms, contaminated drinking water and harmed aquatic life. The latest step was to test whether multinational companies can be held to account for the actions of their oversea subsidiaries.

Meanwhile, in a case that is one of a series of legal battles that Shell has been fighting in London courts, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has ruled that it was too late for the claimants to sue two Shell subsidiaries over a 2011 offshore oil spill. The matter was that an estimated 40,000 barrels of crude had leaked on December 20, 2011 when a tanker was loaded at Shell’s Bonga oilfield, 120km (75 miles) off the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

Court refused to look at evidence presented by either side.

Shell disputed the allegations and said the Bonga spill was dispersed offshore and did not impact the shoreline. However, a panel of five Supreme Court justices unanimously rejected the claimants’ argument that the ongoing consequences of the pollution represented a “continuing nuisance.” According to Reuters, the court refused to look at the evidence supporting either side’s assertions or make a ruling on the issue. It only decided the legal point of nuisance. Justice Andrew Burrows, as he delivered the ruling, said, “The leak was a one-off event or an isolated escape and the pipe was no longer leaking after six hours.”

About 27,800 people and 457 communities living in the delta have been trying to sue Shell. They said the leftover slick polluted their lands and waterways and damaged their farming, fishing, drinking water, mangrove forests and religious shrines. The situation in the region is so bad that the average life expectancy in the region is 41 years, which is 10 years lower than the national average. The UK courts have previously ruled against Shell in another case involving pollution in the Niger Delta.

Illegal third-party interference responsible for spills, Shell had claimed.

Previously, the UK Supreme Court had allowed a group from the Ogale and Bille communities to sue Shell over spills, and that case is currently through the High Court. At that time, Shell said it was not responsible for most of those spills and said they were caused by illegal third-party interference. The company said it believed litigation does little to address the real problem in the region. “Oil spills occur due to crude oil theft, illegal reining and sabotage, with which SPDC is constantly faced and which cause the most environmental damage,” according to a Shell spokesperson.

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