Thousands of Nigerians are requesting British judges to grant them liberty to sue Royal Dutch Shell Plc in London for environmental degradation caused by oil spills 3,000 miles away in Africa, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.
Counsels for residents of oil-rich Niger-Delta are hopeful that a landmark U.K. Supreme Court judgment against a London-based miner last year will set a precedent.
Shell, which has prevented the suit twice from being heard by British courts, says the case should be heard in Nigeria.
Oil firms are facing hard times from dwindling profits as the coronavirus pandemic has crippled demand and dragged prices lower. It is probable that Shell will also face litigations in the U.K., in addition to those underway in the Netherlands, which are capable of exposing the oil supermajor to bigger damages for causing pollution in the developing world.
An April 2019 verdict, permitting a group of Zambians to embark on a trial against Vedanta Resources Plc for pollution induced by a copper-mining unit, explains the law around a company’s obligation of care to those made vulnerable by the operations of a subsidiary, said Robert Meade, an attorney specialising in oil and gas at law firm, Bracewell LLP.
Still, “it does not mean that a parent company might be liable for its subsidiaries’ actions or inaction,” he said.
Daniel Leader, a partner at Leigh Day representing the Nigerian claimants, said the English courts should hold the oil major to account in English courts “for the devastating damage Shell has caused to their communities over many years.”
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, derives around 90% of its export earnings from crude while government relies on the commodity for about half of its revenue.
Yet, thousands of spills over the decades have jeopardised the livelihoods of fishing and farming communities in the South-South region of the country including over 40,000 people from the Bille and Ogale communities, who are trying to compel Shell to pay compensation and clean up.
Read also: Shell shuts down Bonga oil export terminal
While the two communities have been adversely affected by spills, a spokesperson for Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) claimed that most resulted from oil theft, pipeline vandalism and illegal refining.
In spite of preventive measures including cages around wellheads and community engagement, SPDC said it recorded 40% surge in spills over 100 kilograms related to theft and sabotage in 2019 compared to 2018.
Amnesty International had in 2018 questioned Shell’s claims regarding the cause of the spills, saying the firm probably understated the number attributable to “operational” faults. SPDC, however, denied the allegations.
After an earlier hearing in the U.K., the judge stated that “the court has to be very careful before passing qualitative judgments on the legal systems of other sovereign nations.” He added that he had seen no proof that the Nigerian judiciary wasn’t “concrete and effective steps to improve the speed with which cases such as this one are dealt with.”
But Leigh Day says there is “sadly no prospect of justice in Nigeria.”
Poor Nigerians stand a little chance of success against rich oil companies in overburdened domestic courts, according to local lawyers and activists.
“Our legal system is so enslaved to procedure and technicalities and, of course, the multinationals have mastered this.
“It’s very rare to find a judge who can cut through and get to the meat of the matter,” said Iniruo Wills, a former Minister of Environment, who is representing many communities against SPDC.
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