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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 remain untouched."

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 supposed."

"Even though the oil industry is no longer active in Ogoniland, oil spills continue to occur with alarming regularity," UNEP continued.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 globally."

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 framework.

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 the lawsuit.

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.


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