Royal Dutch Shell, plc (Shell) began oil production in the
Niger Delta region of Nigeria in 1958 and has a long
history of working closely with the Nigerian government to
quell popular opposition to its presence in the region. From
1990-1995, Nigerian soldiers, at Shell’s request and with
Shell’s assistance and financing, used deadly force and
conducted massive, brutal raids against the Ogoni people
living in the Niger Delta to repress a growing movement in
protest of Shell.
Nine”) were executed by the Nigerian government after
being falsely accused of murder and tried by a speciallycreated
military tribunal. Those executed were internationally
acclaimed environmental and human rights activist Ken
Saro-Wiwa, prominent youth leader John Kpuinen, Dr.
Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Doobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel
Gbokoo, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate and Baribor Bera. The
detention, trial, and executions of the Ogoni Nine were the
result of collusion between Shell and the military government
to suppress opposition to Shell’s oil operations in
Nigeria. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR),
EarthRights International (ERI) and other human rights
attorneys sued Shell for human rights violations against the
Ogoni. The case will go to trial on May 26, 2009 in
federal court in New York City.
Royal Dutch Shell, plc (Shell) began oil production in the
The environmental devastation the oil company has caused
to Ogoni lands in the Niger Delta was a primary reason
for the Ogoni movement against Shell. In 2006, the Niger
Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration
Project (an independent team of scientists from Nigeria,
the U.K. and the U.S.) characterized the Niger Delta as
“one of the world’s most severely petroleum-impacted
Their report noted that the Delta is “one of the 10 most
important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world.
Millions of people depend upon the Delta’s natural
resources for survival, including the poor in many other
West African countries who rely on the migratory fish from
the Delta.” Of the near 27 million people living in the
Niger Delta, an estimated 75 percent rely on the environment
for their livelihood, often farming and fishing for
market or subsistence living. Shell’s operations in the Delta
have led to the deep impoverishment of the Ogoni people
and surrounding communities in the Delta.
Natural gas is a byproduct of oil drilling. In much of the
world, this gas is either used for energy or re-injected into
the well. In Nigeria, Shell and other oil companies burn it in
a process known as gas flaring. Nigeria flares more gas
than any other country but Russia; at least 20 billion cubic
meters of gas are burned per year, enough to meet the
energy needs of Nigeria and neighboring countries.
The gas burned in flares is not the clean natural gas used
for heating or cooking; the gas is contaminated with toxic
compounds and the flares send huge toxic plumes into the
air. The chemicals, which end up in local waterways and
fields through soot and precipitation, include carcinogens
such as benzene, a deadly chemical that can cause
convulsions, chromosomal damage and birth defects. Many
of the flares are located adjacent to Niger Delta communities.
According to the World Bank, gas flaring in Nigeria,
which generates no useful energy, has contributed more
greenhouse gases emissions than all other sources in
sub-Saharan Africa combined.
The Nigerian government first moved to end gas flaring in
1969 when it ordered corporations to set up infrastructure
to utilize associated gas. Shell and other oil companies
ignored this order. The Nigerian government passed the
Associated Gas Reinjection Act in 1979 that required oil
companies to submit a detailed plan for utilizing all gas
with an ultimate goal of ending flaring by 1984. Since then,
Shell and other companies have continued flaring, choosing
to pay a fine rather than clean up their operations.
Shell was again ordered to stop flaring in 2005 when
Nigeria’s Federal High Court declared gas flaring as a
gross violation of the neighboring communities’ human
rights. Shell and other oil companies continue to make
excuses. As of December 2008, there were over 100 flare
sites still operating in Nigeria.
An estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled in the Niger
Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years. This amount is
equivalent to about one “Exxon Valdez” spill in the Niger
Delta each year. Many of the spills have taken place in
sensitive habitats for birds, fish and other wildlife, leading to
further loss of biodiversity and, in turn, further impoverishment
of local communities. The spills pollute local water sources
that people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing,
laundering and fishing. They also release dangerous fumes
into the air, sometimes rendering villages uninhabitable and
causing serious illness for those who are unable to relocate.
Many of the oil spills can be attributable to poorly
maintained infrastructure such as aging pipelines.
Environmental groups in Nigeria and Europe have filed a
lawsuit against Shell in the Netherlands for its history of oil
spills and lack of cleanup in Nigeria. According to the
Nigerian environmental group involved in the suit, cleanup of
oil spills is often very superficial, sometimes involving little
more than turning the land so that the oil remains just
beneath the surface of the soil.
A Pattern of Green Washing
Despite Shell’s dirty record in Nigeria and elsewhere, the
company continues to try to falsely portray itself as “green” in
its advertising, a practice known as “greenwashing.”
The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has found
that Shell’s environmental claims violated advertising rules. In
2007, Friends of the Earth filed complaints about a Shell ad
featuring an oil refinery emitting flowers that was accompanied
by a claim that its carbon dioxide waste was used to
grow flowers. The chairman of ASA called it “a ridiculous
claim” and Shell was forced to pull the ad. In 2008, the ASA
banned Shell’s ad that claimed it was building a “profitable
and sustainable future” through its development of the largest
oil refinery in the U.S. and its petroleum mining in a Canadian
oil sands deposit.
The Case against Shell
Beginning in 1996, the Center for Constitutional Rights
(CCR), Earth Rights International (ERI), Paul Hoffman of
Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman and other
human rights attorneys have brought a series of cases to hold
Shell accountable for human rights violations in Nigeria,
including summary execution, crimes against humanity,
torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention.
The lawsuits are brought against the Royal Dutch/Shell
group and Brian Anderson, the head of its Nigerian operation.
The cases were brought under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789
statute giving non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits in U.S.
courts for international human rights violations, and the
Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows individuals to seek
damages in the U.S. for torture or extrajudicial killing,
regardless of where the violations take place.
Shell has made many attempts to have these cases thrown
out of court, which the plaintiffs have defeated. The United
States District Court for the Southern District of New York has
set a trial date of May 26, 2009. The plaintiffs eagerly
await their day in court to hold the defendants accountable
for their injuries and the deaths of loved ones.