The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has ruled that oil-polluted Nigerian communities can sue Royal Dutch Shell in English courts after years of oil spills in the Niger Delta polluted land, wells and groundwater.
The court ruled on Friday that two Nigerian communities, of more than 50,000 people combined, can bring their legal claims for clean-up and compensation against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC).
Members of Nigeria’s Ogale and Bille communities say their lives and health have suffered because repeated oil spills have contaminated the land, swamps, groundwater and waterways and that there has been no adequate cleaning or remediation.
Daniel Leader, a partner in the British law firm Leigh Day, who led the legal team representing the Nigerian communities, said, the ruling is “a watershed moment in the accountability of multinational companies, ”
“This 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, ” Mr Leader said, according to Leighday.
“In this latest case, the UK Supreme Court overturned a split decision of the Court of Appeal and held that the two cases brought by the Ogale and Bille communities against Royal Dutch Shell are arguable and can proceed in the English courts.
The ruling is the second judgement against Shell this year regarding claims against its Nigeria operations.
In a landmark Dutch ruling two weeks ago, an appeals court held Shell responsible for multiple oil pipeline leaks in the Niger Delta, which is at the heart of the Nigerian oil industry, and ordered it to pay unspecified damages to farmers, in a victory for environmentalists.
It said in 2015, Shell agreed to pay out $83.4 million to the Bodo community in Nigeria in compensation for two oil spills, which was the largest ever out-of-court settlement relating to Nigerian oil spills.
Shell started exploiting Nigeria’s vast oil reserves in the late 1950s and has faced heavy criticism from activists and local communities overspill and for the company’s close ties to government security forces.
Mr Leader said the judgement would most likely increase the ability of “impoverished communities” to hold powerful companies to account.
“Indeed, courts in Western countries have recently indicated that they were increasingly open to hearing such cases.“Last month, a court in the Netherlands ruled that Shell was liable for pollution in another case involving Nigerian farmers.
“The Ogale and Bille peoples bringing the case in Britain say their lives have been blighted by years of damage from oil spills from pipelines operated by Shell,” he said.
Mr Leader added a case was now likely to be brought against Shell in Britain, though he suggested that there might be more room for legal manoeuvres by the oil company on issues of jurisdiction.
“Unless Shell settles, the case is likely to take another two or three years, he said.
Shell said the company’s subsidiary in Nigeria cleaned up the mess “regardless of the cause.”
SPDC is the operator of oil pipelines in a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation which holds a 55 per cent stake, Shell which holds 30 per cent, France’s Total with 10 per cent and Italy’s Eni with 5 per cent.
Shell routinely blames the damage on sabotage and criminal activity.
According to Shell, Nigerian law requires it to pay compensation for spills caused by operational issues but not for damage resulting from sabotage.
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