Over 14,000 residents from the Niger delta regions of Ogale and Bille in Nigeria are taking legal action against Shell in the High Court of London.
The individuals claim that the oil giant is responsible for the pollution of their water sources and the destruction of their way of life. They are asking for compensation for the loss of their livelihoods, as the ability to farm and fish has been destroyed by the oil spills from Shell operations.
The claimants are also seeking a clean-up of the pollution that they say has devastated their communities.
Shell has argued that the communities have no legal standing to force it to clean up and that the individuals are barred from seeking compensation for spills that happened five years before they lodged their claims. The company further asserted that it bears no responsibility for the spills, which it claims are the result of organised gangs clandestinely siphoning off oil from its pipelines.
The legal case against Shell takes place as the company prepares to leave the Niger delta after more than 80 years of operations that have resulted in substantial profits.
Lawyers in the case argue that the scale of oil spills in the delta masks a human tragedy on an extraordinary scale, with the pollution ingested by local people causing serious health impacts and affecting mortality rates.
In addition to the individual claims, lawyers are seeking compensation for damage to communally owned property in the 40,000-strong rural community of Ogale and the 13,000-strong fishing community of Bille. The main source of water in Ogale, which is used for farming, drinking, and fishing, has been severely polluted by oil contamination, according to the claims.
A Shell spokesperson said that the company is working with the relevant Nigerian authorities to prevent pipeline sabotage, crude oil theft, and illegal refining, which it claims are the main sources of pollution. The company also said that it has done clean-up work and remediation of affected areas.
The outcome of the legal case against Shell promises to have significant implications for the responsibilities of fossil fuel companies in relation to legacy and ongoing environmental pollution.
Nigeria is approaching general elections on 25 February, as Peter Obi – the presidential candidate for the Nigerian Labour Party, Peter Obi – has outlined his agenda for addressing poverty in the country.