Given the age-long travails and aspirations of the oil producing communities of the Niger Delta, we see the recent judgment of the Federal High Court, Asaba, on an oil spill dispute, ordering the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to pay N15.4 billion damages to the Ejama-Ebubu community in Rivers State, as a most salutary development. For over 40 years, the Ejama-Ebubu community in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State had endured the agonies of oil spills without any compensation from Shell, before it went to court nine years ago to demand redress. The oil giant has indicated its decision to appeal against the judgement.


We commend the Ejama-Ebubu community for patiently fighting its cause within the ambit of the law, and refraining from the resort to self-help till judgment was given. It is a worthy example for other communities with similar grievances to strive to emulate.

Over the years reports emanating from the Niger Delta have been replete with incidents of devastating oil spills, dumping of oil into waterways and reckless pollution of the environmental. Others hazards have been gas flares and surface oil-pipelines that crisscross the whole region. Currently, there are over 1,109 impacted or polluted sites across the Niger Delta, with a few cases in other parts of the country, particularly in areas where the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is active. According to the framework of Nigerian law on oil and the Environment as established by the Petroleum Act (originally Decree No.51 of 1969) and other relevant legislations, oil prospecting companies are obliged to “adopt all practicable precautions including the provision of up-to-date equipment to prevent pollution” and must take “prompt steps to control and, if possible, end” pollution, if it occurs.

They must maintain all installations in good repair and condition, in order to prevent “the escape or avoidable waste of petroleum”, and to cause “as little damage as possible to the surface of the relevant areas and to the trees, crops, buildings, structures and other properties thereon.” In fact, oil prospecting companies are also required to comply with all local planning laws: they must not enter into any area held to be sacred, or destroy anything which is an object of veneration, and must allow local inhabitants access to roads constructed in their operating areas. Also, the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (Decree No.86 of 1992) requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be carried out “where the extent, nature or location of a proposed project or activity is such that it is likely to significantly affect the environment”. An EIA is compulsory in certain cases, including oil and gas field development and construction of oil refineries, some pipelines, and processing and storage facilities.

Unfortunately, as with the rest of the regulatory framework governing protection of the environment in Nigeria, there is in practice little or no enforcement of the requirements to carry out EIAs, either by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA), now replaced with the Federal Ministry of Environment, or the Department of Petroleum Resources and the Petroleum Inspectorate. There is currently no quality control oversight on the assessments carried out. Most state and local government authorities involved in environmental management lack funding, trained staff, technical expertise, adequate information, analytical capacity and other pre-requisites for effectively implementing policies and programmes.

Besides the efforts of non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), no meaningful supervision of the Niger Delta environment is going on.

What is more, major oil-prospecting companies operate a double standard, allowing practices in Nigeria that would never be permitted in North America and Europe. Among these multinational corporations, Shell appears to be one of the most culpable, from available statistics. And the Federal Government, which holds majority shares in the Shell/NNPC Joint Venture partnerships, is implicated in the duplicitous acts of the oil giant.

There is hardly need to go into details of a 2004 New York Times report that Shell had concealed information about a sharp reduction in its oil and gas reserves. Of some 3.9 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves that Shell had been constrained to reclassify as probable reserves, Nigeria accounted for 1.3 billion barrels. But the company kept the information secret, purportedly to avoid upsetting the Nigerian Government, while also hoping to sustain its market value. It was a dishonest ploy.

Statistics from the Department of Petroleum Resources indicate that between 1976 and 1996, a total of 4,835 incidents resulted in the spillage of at least 2.4 million barrels of oil, of which an estimated 1.89 million barrels were lost to the environment in the Niger Delta. Shell, as well as other key operators in the oil and gas industry, must recognize the expectations of Nigerians from its extensive involvement in the country’s economic life and dedicate itself to a genuinely mutually beneficial relationship. The facts to date regarding its commitment to environmental health, local content and good community relations are still far from heartwarming. From the British Petroleum’s recent pay-outs to victims of the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil spill in the United States, it is now clear that no matter how long it takes, the Nigerian Government will one day come to its senses regarding its responsibilities on this issue. Given the huge annual profits accruing from oil production in Nigeria, it is reprehensible for oil companies to remain recalcitrant in refusing to clean up areas they have polluted through years of ecological degradation. We advise Shell to pay the N15.4bn judgement debt and proceed, without delay, to clean the polluted community, in the interest of peace and civilised corporate citizenship

Green Hotlines
Green Hotlines
Is there a spill, pipeline rupture, fire, gas flare, water, land or air pollution in your community or one you know about? Do you need assistance to respond, and prevent future occurrences or have you noticed any activity that threatens the environment?

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