September 24, 2012
Shell Says Oil Spills from Corroded Pipes in Nigeria Due to Sabotage
by Robert Kropp
Amnesty International and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development cite the
assessment of experts that the latest in a series of oil spills in the Niger Delta was due to
corrosion in poorly-maintained pipes owned by Shell.
Between 1976 and 2001, a 2009 paper authored by
Nenibarini Zabbey of the Center for Environment, Human
Rights and Development (CEHRD) reports, "The Niger Delta region experiences an average of 273
oil spills, annually, resulting to about 115,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the already
fragile environment each year." Much of the environmental damage has been attributed to the
operations of Royal Dutch Shell; in fact, following two large oil spills in 2008, the company
accepted responsibility for its share of the damage and agreed to fund a cleanup.
Yet the oil spills in the Niger continue. And as a report published last month by Amnesty International and CEHRD points out, experts in oil
infrastructure assessment have concluded that a spill in June of this year was caused by corrosion
in Shell's poorly maintained oil pipeline.
Yet Shell has disputed the finding of corrosion
as the cause of the spill, arguing instead that it was the work of sabotage. Meanwhile, Shell has
done next to nothing to address the 2008 oil spills for which it took responsibility. As the
UK-based Guardian reported yesterday, "An assessment has found only small pilot schemes
were started and the most contaminated areas around Bodo and the Gokana district of Ogoniland
In fact, as a report
issued last year by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) states, "Pollution from over 50
years of oil operations in the region has penetrated further and deeper than many may have
"Even though the oil industry is no longer active in Ogoniland, oil spills
continue to occur with alarming regularity," UNEP continued.
When Amnesty International
and CEHRD issued its report in August, Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty
International, said, "No matter what evidence is presented to Shell about oil spills, they
constantly hide behind the 'sabotage' excuse and dodge their responsibility for massive pollution
that is due to their failure to properly maintain their infrastructure and make it safe, and to
properly clean up oil spills."
"There is more investment in public relations messaging
than in facing up to the fact that much of the oil infrastructure is old, poorly maintained and
prone to leaks – some of them devastating in terms of their human rights impact," she observed.
In 2008, a contractor in Nigeria said, "73 per cent of all pipelines there are more than a
decade overdue for replacement. In many cases, pipelines with a technical life of 15 years are
still in use thirty years after installation," according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
Shell now says that it never
claimed that sabotage was the cause of the most recent oil spill, although it reportedly made
statements to that effect to the local communities. And a spokesperson for the Shell Petroleum
Development Company of Nigeria stated, "The real tragedy of the Niger delta is the widespread and
continual criminal activity, including sabotage, theft and illegal refining, that leads to the vast
majority of oil being spilled."
The report concludes, "The oil spill investigation process
in the Niger Delta has long been criticized for being subject to abuse and for a lack of meaningful
transparency... Shell's overall lack of willingness to respond to legitimate requests for
information and transparency continue to damage the company’s reputation in the Niger Delta and
Furthermore, environmental damage is not the only area where Shell faces
criticism for its operations in Nigeria. A recent issues brief authored by Professor John Ruggie describes Shell's efforts to
convince the US Supreme Court of its argument that corporations cannot be prosecuted for failing to
observe human rights norms because international courts have not upheld such norms within a legal
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit, which will be heard by the US Supreme Court next
month, contend that Shell collaborated with the military forces of Nigeria to violate the human
rights of citizens protesting the environmentally destructive practices of oil companies in the
Niger Delta. Nigerian security forces tortured and executed nine protestors in 1995, according to
In his paper, Ruggie asked, "Should the corporate responsibility to respect
human rights remain entirely divorced from litigation strategy and tactics, particularly where the
company has choices about the grounds on which to defend itself?"
"If, on top of the many
other reputational and legal challenges it has faced over the years, Shell also ends up being held
responsible for so radically constricting the ATS, its road back to the corporate social
responsibility fold will be long and hard," Ruggie concluded.