The rights group Amnesty International and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) say oil giant Shell has been manipulating its investigations into oil spills in Nigeria.
A joint report by the two groups says Shell has wrongly reported the cause of oil spills, the volume of oil spilt, as well as the extent and adequacy of clean up measures. Amnesty International says that the consequences for the affected communities in the Niger Delta region are devastating and can result in them receiving little or no compensation.
DW: Can you give us some examples to illustrate the claims you make in your report?
Audrey Gaughran: We've documented two things in the report and one is systematic problems with the oil spill investigation process, where we've looked at every step of the process and found flaws.The other thing we've documented were specific cases where things have gone wrong. One of the cases is the Bata oil spill which was captured on video secretly, which shows the oil spill was recorded as 'equipment failure' and Shell changed it afterwards to 'sabotage' and then made claims about what happened in the field that were not true and we can see that they are not true because we can see it on video. In another oil spill we looked at more recently in 2012 in Bodo the regulatory agency on the ground started to tell the community "this oil spill must be due to sabotage because the hole is at the top of the pipe in the twelve o'clock position." We contacted an oil pipeline expert who discredited that statement. Shell subsequently said they weren't claiming that it was sabotage and we sent them photographs that showed it was corrosion but the oil spill investigation then stalled and has never been completed. In another oil spill at Bodo, we found that the volume of the oil spilt was recorded as 1,640 barrels. But when we got video footage of the oil spill an expert assessed it and it was definitely far more than that. We can't get Shell to explain how it came up with its figure. So they are the kind of examples of individual problems but the report documents how the system is extremely weak in terms of how volume is recorded generally and how cause is established generally.
Shell has said in the past that theft and sabotage, as you've been mentioning, were responsible for many of its spills. You are saying they are largely caused by poor maintenance. Is that correct?
No, what we are saying is that we accept that theft and sabotage are definitely problems and they cause oil spills, although I think there is a lot of conflation of theft of oil and oil spills. In other words, theft is not spills and spills may or may not happen during the theft of oil. What we are saying is that Shell and other companies say that the vast majority of oil spills are due to sabotage and theft. As a result, the fact that a lot of spills are due to corrosion gets swept under the carpet. And we say they are overstating the spills due to sabotage and theft, which means that a really big problem in the Niger Delta -old and corroded pipes - is simply not getting any attention.
If there is hard and fast evidence of malpractice, why haven't the Nigerian regulators intervened?
One of the things we expose in the report is that, very unfortunately, the Nigerian regulators are part of the problem. They participate in the oil spill investigations which are led by the companies. The regulators are extremely weak in terms of their capacity, they are dependent on the oil companies to take them to the spill site quite often, and they are dependent on the oil companies for technical information. The weakness of the regulators is well documented. The United Nations Environment Program described them as, and I quote, “at the mercy of the oil companies when it came to site visits.”
How has Shell reacted to your allegations?
Shell has denied the allegations, Shell has said that its figures are solid. It disputes our view that they are overstating sabotage and theft. The problem we have consistently had in our engagement and our discussions with Shell is: "Stand by the evidence and be transparent." The company doesn't produce evidence to support what it says. When we ask it to disclose information, it won't. It discloses certain information but what it discloses is entirely up to Shell. I will say that Shell has improved its processes since 2011 and has published information on its website, although the expert we consulted also found problems with that information.
Audrey Gaughran is the Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International
Interview: Mark Caldwell