Court documents expose Shell’s false claims on Nigeria oil spills

Court documents revealed by Amnesty International today expose the fact that Shell has repeatedly made false claims about the size and impact of two major oil spills at Bodo in Nigeria in an attempt to minimize its compensation payments. The documents also show that Shell has known for years that its pipelines in the Niger Delta were old and faulty.

The potential repercussions are that hundreds of thousands of people may have been denied or underpaid compensation based on similar underestimates of other spills.

The irrefutable evidence that Shell underestimated the Bodo spills emerged in a UK legal action brought by 15,000 people whose livelihoods were devastated by oil pollution in 2008. The court action has forced Shell to finally admit the company has underplayed the true magnitude of at least two spills and the extent of damage caused.

“Amnesty International firmly believes Shell knew the Bodo data were wrong. If it did not it was scandalously negligent – we repeatedly gave them evidence showing they had dramatically underestimated the spills,” said Audrey Gaughran, Director for Global Issues at Amnesty International.

“Shell has refused to engage with us and only now that they find themselves in a UK court have they been forced to come clean.”

Shell’s joint investigation report for the first oil spill in the Bodo area of the Niger Delta claims only 1,640 barrels of oil were spilt in total. However, based on an independent assessment published by US firm Accufacts Inc., Amnesty International calculated the total amount of oil spilt exceeded 100,000 barrels. Shell denied this and repeatedly defended its far lower figure.

In the court documents Shell admits its figure is wrong in both this case and a second spill, also in 2008, in the same area. The admission throws Shell’s assessment of hundreds of other Nigeria spills into doubt, as all spill investigations are conducted in the same manner.

“For years Shell has dictated the assessment of volume spilled and damage caused in spill investigation reports, now these reports aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,”said Audrey Gaughran.

“These spill investigation reports have cheated whole communities out of proper compensation.”

The reports, known as “Joint Investigation Visit” reports, decide whether a community gets any compensation and the amount they receive.  They also determine the extent of the clean-up required.

The people of Bodo have been able to take legal action in the UK. However, the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of people in the Niger Delta who suffer oil spills from Shell’s operations will never have this opportunity to challenge the oil giant.

“Pollution from Shell’s operations has wrecked people’s homes, farms and fishing waters - their ability to send their children to school and put food on the table,” said Audrey Gaughran.

Shell’s admission makes clear the Joint Investigation Visit forms – which record the cause of the spills in addition to the volume and impact - cannot be used as credible sources of information.

“Shell will no doubt continue to defend its abysmal record in Nigeria by more misdirection, blaming spills on oil thieves. But the basis for these claims are the Joint Investigation Visit forms – which Shell must now admit are entirely unreliable,” said Audrey Gaughran.

The court documents also show for the first time that Shell knew for years that its oil pipelines were in very poor condition and likely to leak. The court papers include an internal memo by Shell based on a 2002 study that states "the remaining life of most of the [Shell] Oil Trunklines is more or less non-existent or short, while some sections contain major risk and hazard”.

In another internal document dated 10 December 2009 a Shell employee warns: “[the company] is corporately exposed as the pipelines in Ogoniland have not been maintained properly or integrity assessed for over 15 years".

“It’s outrageous that Shell has continued to blame the vast majority of its spills on saboteurs while knowing full well how bad a state its pipelines were in,” said Audrey Gaughran.

“After these revelations, the company stands completely discredited.” 

Background  

Shell has consistently maintained that for the first Bodo spill only 1,640 barrels of oil were spilt and for the second only 2,503 (approx. 4,000 barrels for both). This is based on what was recorded in the Joint Investigation Visit reports.  Amnesty International has repeatedly challenged Shell’s figures and supplied the company with photographic, satellite and video evidence showing that the data on the JIV reports for Bodo were incorrect.

Shell, however, has continued to defend its figures. For example in a letter to the UK Financial Times in March 2012 the Managing Director of Shell Nigeria “admitted liability for two spills of about 4,000 barrels in total, caused by operational failures”. Responding specifically to evidence published by Amnesty International in 2012 which showed the first Bodo spill was under-estimated, Shell told the UK Guardian newspaper: "[The JIV] process … was employed with the two spills in question, and we stand by the findings [of 1,640 barrels]."