Advocacy & People. Chima Williams. To hold transnational corporations accountable

In the aftermath of disastrous oil spills in Nigeria, environmental lawyer Chima Williams worked with two communities to hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for the resultant widespread environmental damage.

On January 29, 2021, the Court of Appeal of the Hague ruled that not only was Royal Dutch Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary responsible for the oil spills, but, as a parent company, Royal Dutch Shell also had an obligation to prevent the spills.

This is the first time a Dutch transnational corporation has been held accountable for the violations of its subsidiary in another country, opening Shell to legal action from communities across Nigeria devastated by the company’s disregard for environmental safety.

Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, is the continent’s largest oil producer and the 13th largest oil producer in the world. More than half of the country’s revenue is derived from the oil sector and crude oil comprises 90% of export revenue.

Most of Nigeria’s oil fields are found in the Niger Delta, the 27,000-square-mile region forming Africa’s largest wetland, where the Niger River drains into the Gulf of Guinea. The region’s 30 million residents are mainly small-scale farmers and fishermen, who, not long ago, were able to live sustainably in harmony with their natural environment.

Today, despite the Niger Delta’s oil wealth, the region’s residents face high levels of poverty—some 70% of residents—and must navigate the environmental degradation caused by oil spills, pollution from oil wells, and gas flares on a daily basis.

Each year, about 240,000 barrels of crude oil spill from pipelines and oil wells into the Niger Delta environment, contaminating water supplies, crops, mangrove forests, and fisheries that people depend on for their livelihoods. Moreover, more than two million people live within 2.5 miles of a gas flare, which can produce 10-story flames burning day and night.

Royal Dutch Shell and its subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria (SPDC), operate 50 oil fields and more than 3,700 miles of pipelines in the Niger Delta. Among many oil disasters, in 2004 a leak from Shell’s Trans-Niger pipeline near the community of Goi caught fire, incinerating farmland and mangroves and polluting a nearby lake.

In 2005, a pipeline leak near Oruma polluted the land and drinking water for 12 days before SPDC contained the spill. Shell claimed that the two spills were the result of sabotage by armed gangs, but in 2008 an oil company executive revealed that 73% of pipelines in Nigeria were corroded and needed replacement, and that many were more than a decade overdue for replacement—exposing a disturbing and preventable trend.

Chima Williams joined the Nigerian environmental movement in the 1990s as a student volunteer for Environmental Rights Action (ERA), an NGO founded in 1993 that advocates for environmental rights in Nigeria. In 1998, Chima founded the Students Environmental Assembly Nigeria, the first-ever student-run environmental justice group in the country. Now the executive director of ERA (ERA/Friends of the Earth Nigeria), he serves as an environmental lawyer prosecuting transnational corporations on environmental pollution cases in Nigeria.

Chima learned of the Goi and Oruma oil spills through his work with other Niger Delta communities and, deeply concerned about the environmental devastation, he worked with affected residents on options for remediation and prevention.

Chima knew that it was difficult to hold oil companies accountable in the Nigerian court system – corporations were often able to delay legal proceedings indefinitely and government authorities were sometimes vulnerable to corruption – and, even with positive judgments, enforcement is a herculean task. In this case, Shell used its subsidiary, SPDC, to insulate itself from liability, claiming that it had no responsibility for oil spills in Nigeria because SPDC is the operator. Previous attempts to hold multinationals accountable for their Nigerian operations in their home countries had failed.

After many community meetings, workshops, and surveys of the pipelines and oil spill damage, Chima and the communities of Goi and Oruma decided together to pursue legal remedies against Royal Dutch Shell and SPDC in the Netherlands.

In 2008, partnering with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, Chima helped the victims sue both entities on behalf of Goi and Oruma farmers and fishermen, seeking payment for lost income due to contaminated land and waterways, and demanded that the companies improve pipeline maintenance.

In 2013, the District Court of the Hague ruled that Royal Dutch Shell could not be held liable for SPDC’s actions. Chima helped the communities appeal the ruling. As they awaited their next hearing, in 2014 Chima and his legal team gained access to internal Shell documents that revealed that Royal Dutch Shell knew that the Goi pipeline was poorly maintained and needed replacement and executives had lied about it in court.

In 2015, the Court of Appeal of the Hague overturned the previous ruling, finding that Royal Dutch Shell can in fact be sued for its activities in Nigeria. Finally, in 2020, after numerous stalling tactics by Royal Dutch Shell’s lawyers, the case against the company was heard in court.

On January 29, 2021, the Court of Appeal of the Hague ruled that Royal Dutch Shell ultimately has oversight and control over SPDC’s operations to the point that it has a duty to prevent oil spills. The ruling means that Goi and Oruma farmers are owed compensation for the oil spills, with amounts yet to be determined. Shell was held accountable for failing to install a leak detection system on the Oruma pipeline standard practice in oil pipeline operations in Western nations.

Chima also supported a third community – Ikot Ada Udo – with a related lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell, but the case is still pending.

The Court’s ruling has ramifications for communities across the Niger Delta because Shell is responsible for approximately 50% of the region’s oil production. This landmark decision paves the way for other communities affected by oil spills to sue Royal Dutch Shell for environmental destruction caused by its operations. Previously, Shell had settled out of court and provided compensation, but this is the first time that it has been held accountable in Dutch court.

In 2022, Chima received the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel Prize”, for his role in helping the Goi and Oruma communities of the oil-rich Niger Delta region get justice. (The Goldman Environment Report – Photo Goldman Environmental Prize).

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