Oil spills and violence plague Shell operations in Nigeria

Anchorage Daily NewsDecember 4, 2011 

Second of three parts

Ask almost any environmental activist about Shell and he'll point to Nigeria, in West Africa.

Environmentalists say decades of oil production have left the Niger Delta one of the most polluted regions in the world. Shell is Nigeria's biggest operator, with more than 50 years of oil production there, and it's a main target of activists' wrath.

The political and social situation there is far more complex than anything Shell will encounter in Alaska.

Shell maintains that sabotage by rebels and spills from oil thieves drilling into pipelines or opening wells are mainly to blame for the pollution. Some areas of the country are so violent it's difficult to safely reach the infrastructure for repairs, Shell says.

Other assessments say aging and neglected equipment, substandard practices and insufficient cleanup efforts are also factors.

Rick Steiner is a former University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and marine conservation biologist who has been to Nigeria five or six times to study oil pollution there. He is a long-time oil industry watchdog who has criticized Shell's operations and practices in Russia, Nigeria and Alaska. He resigned his UAF post in 2009 after he publicly criticized Shell sponsorship of a university forum on oil drilling and fishing in Bristol Bay, and the university cut off his federal funding.

Nigerians have seen their land, drinking water and fishing grounds ruined, but haven't shared in the huge oil profits taken in by both the oil producers and the Nigerian government, Steiner said.

Shell's Nigerian operations in shallow water and onshore are through Shell Petroleum Development Company. The Nigerian government owns a 55 percent stake in the joint venture, while Shell owns 30 percent and two smaller companies own the rest.

A group of conservationists, including Steiner, and the Nigerian Ministry of Environment concluded in 2006 that the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez volume of oil spilled every year in the Niger Delta. Much of it was from old, corroded and poorly maintained pipelines, according to the report for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

"The environmental degradation and economic mismanagement feeds the social and economic despair in the region, and thus continues to manifest in epidemic violence and social unrest," Steiner wrote in December 2006 in a request that the United Nations lead a restoration effort.

The United Nations undertook a study of oil pollution in one troubled area, Nigeria's Ogoniland region, that wrapped up in August.

The cost of cleanup will be at least $1 billion and will take 30 years from the time ongoing pollution is stopped, the United Nation's new report on the effect of oil pollution in Ogoniland concludes.

EXECUTIONS IN AFRICA

Local activists drew world attention on the region in the early '90s. One Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, criticized Shell for its environmental practices and the Nigerian government for failing to enforce its own laws, and organized others. He led a protest march in early 1993 that drew a crowd estimated at 300,000, according to various published reports.

That year, Shell abruptly pulled out of Ogoniland, essentially abandoning its facilities, the U.N. report says.

Two years later, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed in what activists called "judicial murder." Their families sued Shell in the United States, and in 2009 Shell settled for $15.5 million. The company said the money was a compassionate payment, and it was time to move on.

"Shell leaders were as shocked as any others of the brutality around these executions. The Shell global CEO at the time even asked for clemency for the accused when we were informed that they had received death penalties," Shell said in a written response to Daily News questions.

Some critics say Shell was not just a corporate bystander to the violence.

A new report by Platform, a London-based social and ecological justice group, contends that in the early 1990s Shell funded government attacks against peaceful protestors in the Ogoni region and that its security forces have continued to brutalize innocent citizens.

"While primary responsibility for human rights violations falls on the Nigerian government and other perpetrators, Shell has played an active role in fueling conflict and violence in a variety of forms," the Platform report said.

Shell said the Nigerian federal government -- as majority owner of the oil production facilities -- oversees the military units that provide much of the security.

"Suggestions in the report that SPDC (Shell Petroleum Development Co.) directs or controls military activities are therefore completely untrue," Shell said in response to Daily News questions.

Platform said that since the crisis in the Ogoni region, Shell has distanced itself from major military operations. But the company still funds its own private security force, its report said.

Some of the case studies in the Platform report are inaccurate or unsubstantiated, and the report obscures the company's good work, Shell said.

"However, we will carefully examine its recommendations and look forward to continuing a constructive dialogue with the Nigerian government and other stakeholders to find solutions to these issues," Shell said.

MASSIVE THEFTS OF CRUDE

By Shell's calculation, interference by rebels and pirates accounts for 70 percent of all oil spilled in the last five years. Sometimes thieves haul crude to makeshift refineries in open boats that look like overloaded, oversized canoes trailing a rainbow sheen.

Shell says its oil production elsewhere in Nigeria has generated $35 billion over the last five years in taxes, royalties and direct revenue to the government, an onshore oil field partner. It has put millions more into health care, agriculture, education and micro-business programs.

But people remain poor and are upset with the government over their situation, Shell says.

"The unrest has turned into a worrying criminal movement, which feeds on massive thefts of crude oil," Shell said.

Pipelines carrying oil produced elsewhere in Nigeria still run through Ogoniland and aren't adequately maintained by Shell, the 262-page U.N. Environment Programme report said. The company didn't properly decommission all its oil infrastructure when it bailed out, the report said.

Some wellheads can be easily accessed by thieves. Formation pressure, corrosion and illegal tapping can cause wells to blow out. The U.N. team witnessed a raging fire at a blown-out well that burned for a month.

Oil pollution in Ogoniland is widespread and creating numerous hazards to human health, the report concluded. Spills were happening regularly, they weren't immediately addressed, and cleanup equipment too often was in poor condition and ineffective, the report said.

The U.N. says the $10 million study was paid for by a venture that includes Shell and the government of Nigeria, among others.

The study did not attempt to quantify how much oil spilled, and seemed to put more blame on theft and sabotage than on poor oil company practices, Steiner said.

The U.N. team didn't favor Shell, said Nairobi-based U.N. spokesman Nick Nuttall.

Whether anyone could come up with an accurate figure of spills over 50 years is questionable, he said. Researchers tried to identify hot spots where urgent attention is needed and create a "balanced, scientific baseline upon which the communities, authorities and government can build a response for the sake of the people of Ogoniland."

Shell said it's working to address the issues identified by the U.N.

LAWSUITS

Shell acknowledges it was responsible for two 2008 spills from a major pipeline, one from corrosion and the other from a defective weld. Steiner, who is working as an expert witness for the local community suing Shell in London over those spills, traveled to the region this past summer and said much of the oil has yet to be cleaned up. He said oil seeped for five months.

Shell says security concerns delayed its response but that it didn't take five months. In the case of the second spill, discovered in December 2008, a joint investigative team that included Shell, security forces and representatives of various government agencies reached the site in February 2009, Shell said.

The primary cleanup was done by December 2009, Shell said, but before that could be verified, there were additional spills, not related to pipeline operational issues.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case against Royal Dutch Shell brought by another group from Ogoniland who allege Shell was complicit in human rights abuses from 1992 to 1995. The issue before the court is whether corporations can be held liable under a 1789 U.S. law for human rights abuses overseas.

Shell's pipeline maintenance practices fall far short of international best practices and Nigerian law, Steiner said.

Shell disputes Steiner's characterization. The company says it suspends production when leaks are discovered and works to contain spills. Tides in mangrove swamps can quickly spread even small amounts of oil, Shell said.

If oil production cannot be done safely, it shouldn't be done at all, Steiner responded. Shell should be doing better surveillance in areas where thieves are known to regularly siphon oil and should be using the latest leak detection technology, he said.


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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