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Shell fights lawsuits over Nigeria environmental record

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screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-17-13-56SARAH KENT: November 21, 2016

Royal Dutch Shell is fighting lawsuits this week in London and The Netherlands over its environmental record in Nigeria, highlighting the quagmire of problems the energy company faces there as it tries to pivot away from the West African nation.

The oil-rich Niger Delta has generated billions of dollars for Shell over the past 60 years, but the company’s operations have been plagued by sabotage, theft and oil spills that ravaged the local environment.

Though Nigeria was one of its most prolific regions for crude production in 2015, Shell has sold off tracts of onshore oilfields. Its new focus — sealed with the mammoth $US50 billion acquisition of BG Group this year — is deepwater wells off the coasts of the US and Brazil and a historic shift toward natural gas that puts it at the forefront of oil companies offering a more climate-friendly image to investors.

The flurry of lawsuits Shell is facing for oil spills from its Nigerian operations are a legacy of decades of drilling that now carry financial and reputational risks. The hearings in London’s High Court, scheduled to start on Tuesday, represent an early test for cases brought by the community of Ogale and a group from the Bille Kingdom. They are hoping to hold Shell accountable for environmental damage they claim has been caused by spills from infrastructure operated by Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, or SPDC.

Shell is expected to argue that only the subsidiary should be held liable and that the cases should be heard in Nigeria, SPDC’s base and where the incidents took place.

“This litigation is divisive, it’s costly, it’s time consuming, and asking courts unfamiliar with the reality on the ground in Nigeria does nothing to address the very real problems they’re facing like oil theft, criminality and illegal refining,” a spokeswoman for SPDC said.

But the communities and their lawyers say seeking justice in Nigeria won’t hold Shell responsible for the actions of its subsidiary and is extraordinarily difficult. It can take decades for cases to wind their way through the court system with no relief for land poisoned by oil spills, barren fishing creeks and the foul water that runs from their pumps, they say.

“You cannot fight Shell in Nigeria,” the king of Ogale, Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, said in a phone interview. “Shell is Nigeria, Nigeria is Shell.

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