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Nigeria: New government must ensure Shell’s sale of its Niger Delta oil business does not worsen human rights abuses

By Amnesty International: 26 May 2023

Nigeria’s new government, which will be sworn in on 29 May, must ensure that Shell’s planned sale of its operations in the Niger Delta does not lead to a further deterioration in human rights in a region blighted by decades of oil pollution.

Amnesty International has documented grievous and enduring human rights abuses resulting from oil contamination in the area, where Shell has operated since the 1950s. Amnesty International is concerned that the proposed sale will deny people already harmed access to adequate remedy, and potentially expose many more to future abuses.

A new report issued today, Tainted Sale?, recommends a series of safeguards and actions to help protect the rights of people potentially affected by Shell’s planned disposal of its onshore oil interests in the Niger Delta, reportedly for about US$3 billion.

Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s Head of Business and Human Rights, said: “For decades spills have damaged the health and livelihoods of many of the Niger Delta’s inhabitants. Shell should not be allowed to wash its hands of the problems and leave. Shell has earned billions of dollars from this business and it must make sure that its withdrawal does not have negative human rights and environmental consequences.

“By exercising appropriate oversight of Shell’s sale, Nigeria’s incoming administration has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its determination to uphold and protect the human rights of its citizens, including their rights to an adequate standard of living, clean water, and health. We are also calling for effective remedy for people whose rights have long been abused.

“We urge the new government, under President Bola Tinubu, to ensure Shell’s sale does not end or limit the company’s liabilities. As a condition of sale, it should require Shell to provide a full assessment of all existing pollution in the delta, ensure it has provided satisfactory remediation for any damage, and that local inhabitants’ concerns about the sale process are fully appraised and addressed.

“The government should consider requiring Shell to act as a guarantor to ensure any purchaser is capable of making good and remediating damage caused by any future spills and that any buyer is committed to transparency, environmental compliance, consultations with communities, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Of course, rather than finding buyers and wringing the last drops of oil from a region so long blighted by the industry, the better option would be remedying the harms caused, and phasing out production.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that without accelerating the phasing out of fossil fuels worldwide, global temperatures will rise by more than an agreed limit of 1.5C versus pre-industrial levels. After decades of exploitation, retiring production in the Niger Delta would be a step in the right direction.”

For more than 20 years Amnesty International and partner organizations have conducted research in the Niger Delta. It has demonstrated that Shell’s operations have come at the cost of the human rights of people living there.

Hundreds of spills a year from poorly maintained pipelines and wells, along with inadequate clean-up practices, have led to widespread oil contamination, including of groundwater and drinking water sources, agricultural land and fisheries, and damaged the health and livelihoods of many inhabitants.

The impact of the pollution can be devastating. In 2019, an academic study, found that oil spills occurring within 10km of a mother’s place of residence in the Niger Delta doubled neonatal mortality rates and impaired the health of surviving children.

Mark Dummett said: “Shell must take its own steps to ensure effective remedy for people whose human rights have been impaired by this devastating pollution, and that its divestment plan does not worsen the plight of the Niger Delta’s inhabitants.”

“International standards, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, are clear that Shell has a responsibility to conduct a human rights due diligence process on its decision to transfer assets. This responsibility is independent of any steps Nigeria’s government will take.”

Shell disputes allegations that it has acted irresponsibly in the Niger Delta, and says it complies with regulations. It has previously pointed to improvements that it says it has made in recent years in response to preventing and cleaning oil spills, investments in infrastructure, oil anti-theft measures, and increased transparency in its reporting of spills.

Shell is not uniquely responsible for the devastating oil pollution that blights the Niger Delta. There are other actors, including the federal and state authorities. They too have an obligation to ensure that Shell’s divestment does not lead to further human rights harms.

The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited – Joint Venture (SPDC JV) is one of Nigeria’s largest oil producers.

Shell was the majority owner of this business for many years, but its main shareholder is now the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, which holds 55%. The rest is owned by subsidiaries of international oil companies. Shell, through its wholly-owned subsidiary the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) Limited owns 30%, the French company Total has 10%, and the Italian company Eni 5%.

Importantly, through SPDC, Shell is the operator for the SPDC JV, which means it operates and maintains the wells, pipelines and other facilities needed to produce and transport the oil. The partners fund the operations and maintenance in proportion to their share in the joint venture.

During the past decade, the SPDC JV has sold much of its business, including oilfields, to several much smaller Nigerian-owned companies.

Shell now intends to sell both its stake in SPDC JV and its operating subsidiary in a deal involving its staff, facilities and infrastructure. This includes 263 producing oil wells, 56 producing gas wells and a network of 3,173km of pipelines.


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