Residents fetch water from a well contaminated by oil pollution at Ogale Town, Eleme in southeast Nigeria, on June 13, 2015.
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Over 13,000 residents from two Nigerian communities are seeking damages from Shell in the High Court in London, calling for the energy giant to clean up residual oil and compensate devastating environmental damage.
The claim from 11,317 people and 17 institutions in the Niger Delta area of Ogale, a rural community of around 40,000 situated in Ogoniland, was filed last week, according to Leigh Day, the U.K. law firm representing the plaintiffs.
The action follows individual claims from 2,335 people in the smaller Nigerian community of Bille, which were submitted to the High Court in 2015.
The combined 13,652 claims are asking Shell to take responsibility for the loss of their livelihoods, saying their ability to farm and fish has largely been destroyed.
Shell, which reported its highest-ever annual profit of nearly $40 billion on Thursday, argues that the communities have no legal standing to enforce clean-up of the oil spills. The company says the Ogale and Bille communities were barred from seeking compensation for the spills, many of which occurred over five years before the claims were brought.
The claims are expected to come to trial next year. They follow a 2021 ruling by the U.K.’s Supreme Court that there was “a good arguable case” that London-listed Shell was legally responsible for the systemic pollution caused by its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria.
Shell said in 2021 that it plans to leave the Niger Delta and sell its onshore oilfields and assets after 80 years of operations. The company has frequently been challenged in court over its environmental track record in the West African nation.
Daniel Leader, partner at Leigh Day, said the case raised important questions about Big Oil’s responsibilities over environmental damage overseas.
“It appears that Shell is seeking to leave the Niger Delta free of any legal obligation to address the environmental devastation caused by oil spills from its infrastructure over many decades,” Leader said.
“At a time when the world is focused on ‘the just transition,’ this raises profound questions about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.”
Shell said last month that windfall taxes imposed by the European Union and U.K. following the surge in profits would cost the group about $2 billion.
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Asked about these remarks on Thursday, Shell CEO Wael Sawan told CNBC, “I would not respond to those claims. What I would say … is first and foremost recognizing how challenging the context is in Nigeria, in particular in the Niger Delta.”
He told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick, “A lot of the spills have been caused by theft and sabotage. And even when we have tried to go back in to be able to remedy those leaks, which were caused by third parties, we haven’t been able to sometimes access it because of security concerns.”
“So, there is a really troubled context in Nigeria and that’s a context that is best for the Nigerian government to deal with rather than a private enterprise.”
Shell has not operated in Ogoniland since 1993 and says it transferred operations of its regional assets to the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company. Shell said that the Trans Nigeria Pipeline — which belongs to the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Joint Venture and carries crude oil from various companies — passes through Ogoniland.
A three-year study by the United Nations Environment Programme, published in 2011, reported how the Ogoni people were exposed to severe contamination on a daily basis, impacting their water sources, air quality and farmland.
Despite UNEP warning of “an immediate danger to public health” and urgently calling for the largest terrestrial clean-up operation in history, Leigh Day says that no clean-up has occurred and that residents are still drinking from poisoned wells.
“We have an ongoing commitment to clean up in the areas where we have direct access, and we continue to do that,” Sawan said. “Last year, we significantly invested in decommissioning and restoration of many facilities in Nigeria and around the world. So, indeed, that is a focus area for us.”
He added, “But, as I said earlier, these specific spills and the like are very much attributed to theft and sabotage, which we continue to aim to try to be able to remedy despite the many challenges which I already referred to.”