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Nigeria needs $12 billion to clean up oil spills

Flourish Chukwurah in Lagos
May 19, 2023

A new report says oil giants Shell and Eni should foot a $12-billion bill to clean up a spills in Bayelsa state — but they have denied wrongdoing. Instead, Shell and Eni say illegal refineries and oil theft are to blame.

A boy with a fishnet standing on the oil-stained bank of a creek near Goi, Ogoniland, Nigeria
The report singled out Shell and Eni for being responsible for most of the pollution in southern Bayelsa stateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. van Dijl

The Oruma community in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region is still suffering from a spill in 2005 when oil leaked from a Shell pipeline onto farmland.

The crude oil leak caused extensive damage to local ecosystems, turning the lush forest — once the main source of income for farmers and fishers — into a contaminated landscape.

One of the fishponds, which used to teem with fish, has been neglected for many years because it no longer produces anything for the farmers. Moreover, a close look at the surface reveals that water still smells of crude oil.

"Even though we plant, the oil inside will surely kill the crops that we plant," Chief Ernest Oginaba, a local farmer, told DW. "So we feel very bad. All these places are condemned, nobody can use it again."

Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer and churns out nearly 1 million barrels of crude every day.

Oil companies urged to pay for cleanup

Shell prevails in latest legal battle

In a historic ruling in 2021, a Dutch court held Shell accountable for the disaster and ordered it to compensate the Oruma community for the harm. However, even though most people have yet to get the money, the case has opened the door for new petitions.

Just last week, Britain's Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shell in another oil pollution case in the Niger Delta.

According to the ruling, it was too late for the complainants to sue two Shell subsidiaries for an offshore spill that occurred during the loading of an oil tanker at Shell's Bonga oil field in 2011.

"The chair [UK judges] has not denied that it happened," said China Williams, a barrister and environmental activist who has been instrumental in instituting court cases in London on behalf of various communities in the Niger Delta.

"The litigants can call for a review of the Supreme Court judgment if they can prove that the damage is continuous," said Williams. 

A woman walks along an oil pipeline near Shell's Utorogu flow station in Warri, Nigeria
Oil giants in Nigeria have blamed oil spills on sabotage and pipeline vandalismImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Osodi

Oil 'damage is irreparable'

According to the report issued this month by the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission, the total volume of oil spilled in Bayelsa is at least 10 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker catastrophe, which damaged some 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of the Alaskan coastline in the United States.

The report said the two oil giants must pay at least $12 billion (€11.11 billion) for the cleanup.

However, the oil firms have argued that they are not responsible, blaming the oil spills on saboteurs and crude oil theft.

Along with compensation, the report urged significant legal changes to the control of the oil and gas industry in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and Nigeria.

An abandoned illegal refinery at the creeks of Bayelsa, Nigeria
The Niger Delta is blighted by pollution, conflict and corruptionImage: Sunday Alamba/AP Photo/picture alliance

The research outlined a comprehensive set of remedies that would help to undo the harm done to Bayelsa and ensure that oil firms prospecting in other regions of Nigeria and Africa do not replicate the report's listed behaviors.

"The damage is irreparable," Pere Wapeabiama David Amakiri, paramount ruler of the Oruma Community, told DW.

"For us it's the victory that we have got, the precedent that we've been able to set," said Amakiri, adding it would be a lesson others can still follow.

"[Oil] companies will be a little bit more cautious, a little bit more careful in carrying out their operations," he said.

Blood tests detect 'toxins at very high levels'

The impact of the oil pollution is not limited to the environment, with the report proving that toxic pollutants have also been found in residents' blood.

"The report said after taking over 1,600 blood samples from people living in this affected area of oil spills, they found toxins at very high levels in the blood of these people," said DW correspondent Olisa Chukwumah. "Also in the water, which they say is a million times higher than safe levels and also something that could cause cancer risk and lung diseases and problems for people."

A teenager swims in oil floating on the Ogboinbirin river in Nigeria's Bayelsa state
Nigeria needs $12 billion to clean up decadesold oil spills in southern BayelsaImage: dpa/picture alliance

Communities and activists have long accused oil-producing firms like the British-owned Shell and the Italian-owned Eni of failing to secure and maintain the pipelines. 

"If you go around the creeks in Bayelsa, you will weep for the region and the state," Dr. Stanley Boro, a developmental and environmental scholar, told DW.

"The level of damage these things have caused cuts across their social life, economic life and even politically."

Edited by: Keith Walker

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