When Shell Oil found petroleum in Africa’s Niger Delta (pictured at left) more than fifty years ago, it sparked a half-century long battle between one of the word’s biggest oil companies and local communities affected by oil pollution. The fight over oil in the Niger Delta has been one of the longest and bloodiest environmental battles in the world, and is certainly far from over.
However this month community activists scored an important victory that could turn the tide against Shell. After being sued over damage from two massive oil spills that occurred in 2008 and early 2009, the oil giant accepted legal responsibility for the spills. This means Shell could be required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in the Niger Delta, to aid a cleanup effort that could take up to two decades to finish.
The Niger Delta in southern Nigeria is among the most productive oil extraction zones in Africa. Nigeria is also the most populated country on the African continent, with hundreds of thousands of people living in areas that are highly impacted by oil industry operations. Because the oil industry in Nigeria is relatively unregulated, practices that would be illegal in the United States or Europe are a routine occurrence in the Niger Delta.
Since 1989, an estimated 7,000 oil spills of varying size have occurred in the region, polluting local water supplies. Another environmentally dangerous practice connected with oil is that of natural gas “flaring.” Unwanted gas found in oil wells is burned or flared by companies like Shell, posing safety issues for nearby populations and contributing to climate change. If the natural gas now flared by oil companies was instead used to generate energy, it could meet over 40% of Africa’s natural gas demand.
While damage to the environment is a regular occurrence in the Niger Delta, two oil spills that occurred close together a couple of years ago were particularly devastating. In late 2008 and early 2009, two accidents at Shell operations spilled an amount of oil roughly equivalent to that released in Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
As much as ten million gallons of oil from the two spills seeped into the water supplies of Bodo, a community of about 69,000 people, as well as dozens of smaller villages in the region of the Niger Delta known as Ogoniland. In contrast to oil spills in the US, which are usually dealt with right away, Shell at first made no attempt to clean up toxic sludge from the spills.
Only now, after a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of communities in Ogoniland, has UK-based Shell agreed to accept cleanup responsibility for the accidents. Removing all the oil spilled in 2008 and 2009 is a process expected to take up to twenty years to complete. The fact that Shell has accepted responsibility is a major victory for Nigerian activists, and may set a precedent that makes it easier for impacted communities to receive compensation from oil companies in the future.
Winning the right to challenge oil industry operations hasn’t been easy for the residents of Bodo and other villages in Ogoniland. In the 1990s, eight anti-oil organizers from the region were executed by Nigeria’s government after causing problems for the oil industry. The Nigerian government has historically been a strong supporter of Shell in the Niger Delta, with locals saying it is hard to tell the difference between hired company thugs and pro-oil government security forces.
However publicity around the deaths of the activists sparked an international outcry over oil industry activities in Nigeria. And far from being intimidated, residents of impacted communities continued to push for the cleanup of their land and water. Shell’s acceptance of responsibility for two of the biggest spills in recent years is a sign these efforts are at last paying off. It’s also hopeful news for communities everywhere who seek compensation for pollution from the oil industry.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/terry_wha/1135784069/sizes/m/in/photostream/