Lawyers for the Bodo community in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta, devastated by two major oil spills a decade ago, went to court in London this week to fend off what they said was an attempt by Shell to kill off litigation.
The Bodo oil spills have been the subject of years of legal wrangling. In 2015, Shell accepted liability, agreeing to pay 55 million pounds ($83 million at the time) to Bodo villagers and to clean up lands and waterways.
Oil spills, some due to vandalism and some to corrosion, are common in the Niger Delta, a vast maze of creeks and mangrove swamps criss-crossed by pipelines and blighted by poverty, pollution, oil-fuelled corruption and violence.
The spills had a catastrophic impact on many communities where people have no other water supply than the creeks and rely on farming and fishing for survival.
At the same time, oil companies have problems cleaning up spills, because of obstruction and even violence by local gangs trying to extract bigger pay-outs, or to obtain clean-up contracts.
After years of delays, the clean-up in Bodo is currently underway and litigation in the London High Court is stayed, or on hold.
Lawyers for SPDC, the Nigerian arm of Shell, argued the litigation should be struck off in October 2018, or at the latest a year later and it should only be re-activated if SPDC failed to comply with its obligation to pay for the clean-up.
Lawyers for the Bodo community said that was unacceptable, because the clean-up could go wrong for any number of reasons and under Shell’s proposal villagers would be left without court recourse.
“The effect of what Shell is trying to do is to kill off the case,” said Dan Leader, the Bodo community’s lead lawyer, on the sidelines of the hearing. “It’s only because of litigation pressure the clean-up is getting back on track.”
Shell’s lawyers, citing an earlier judgment, compared the stayed litigation to a “gun in the cupboard” the Bodo community’s lawyers wanted to be able to hold to Shell’s head at their convenience, for years on end.
They said litigation was a hindrance to the clean-up because it gave some local community members the impression there was still the possibility of a bigger payout, incentivising them to block rather than co-operate.
“Previous persistent delays to the clean-up process clearly demonstrate litigating Nigerian oil spill cases in English courts does little to resolve the complex underlying security and community issues which can frustrate attempts to clean up areas impacted by oil pollution,” an SPDC spokeswoman said.
“We hope the community will continue to grant access needed for clean-up to progress as planned.”
Judgment on the litigation issues is expected on Friday.