News / Africa

Shell Accused of Misreporting Oil Spills as Pipeline Thefts

FILE - Oil is seen on the creek water's surface near an illegal oil refinery in Ogoniland, outside Port Harcourt, in Nigeria's Delta region, Mar. 24, 2011.
FILE - Oil is seen on the creek water's surface near an illegal oil refinery in Ogoniland, outside Port Harcourt, in Nigeria's Delta region, Mar. 24, 2011.
Heather Murdock
Amnesty International says it has uncovered proof that Shell Petroleum conceals the amount of oil it spills in Nigeria's Niger Delta region. Shell maintains most of the oil it loses is due to theft, not to slipshod operations and management.
An oil spill near the town of Warri last May devastated local farmers, who grow cassava, pineapples and plantains. Joseph Ovih, a local farmer, wants oil companies to pay for his loss. 
“Up until now Shell has refused to come and settle [with] us. They deceive us and it’s misery,” said Ovih.
The compensation he wants is owed to him by law only if the spill was caused by some kind of failure by the oil company, such as a pipe corroding or breaking as a result of poor maintenance. If someone breaks into a pipeline to steal oil, or to sabotage production, oil companies do not have to pay damages.  
Amnesty International’s director of global issues, Audrey Gaughran, says oil companies routinely blame oil spills on thieves even when the company is at fault.
“People rarely get compensated because the vast majority of the spills are attributed to sabotage or theft of oil, and it does a lot of damage to people’s livelihoods - to their farms and their fisheries. They get no compensation at all for that,” said Gaughran.
Amnesty released a report Thursday pointing out that oil companies are the ones who declare what caused their losses, based on manipulated investigations that produce reports that are “deeply suspect and often untrue.” 
Amnesty claims it has evidence revealing that Shell Petroleum, which pumps the bulk of oil in Nigeria's Niger Delta region, underreports the size of spills and ignores evidence demonstrating that the fault lies with faulty equipment, not sabotage.
Oil thieves do attack pipelines in Nigeria on a regular basis, Amnesty says, but oil companies do not do enough to protect their facilities.
“We’ve found evidence that sometimes they don’t even take basic security measures to protect their infrastructure. But there are standards - internationally accepted standards - that Nigerian law requires oil companies adhere to,” said Gaughran.
There have been hundreds of spills in the Niger Delta in this year alone, Amnesty claims. Over the past 50 years, the rights group estimates the delta region has suffered the annual equivalent of the mammoth oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez maritime disaster.
Responding to the report by email, Shell Petroleum rejected Amnesty’s accusations and declared it is not Shell but criminals who cause oil pollution. At the beginning of this year, Shell says, thieves were diverting 100,000 barrels of oil every day, costing the Nigerian government of billions of dollars in lost revenue. 
Godwin Boluku runs a local organization in Warri that tries to assess and clean up oil spills. He says oil spills cause hunger for many of the roughly 30 million people who live in the Niger Delta, especially those who rely on farming or fishing.
“If the water body or the land refused to produce as expected, I think it affects our getting what we want in terms of food for sustenance,” said Boluku.
Boluku blames government regulators for the disaster and says they should force oil companies to comply with the law. However, Amnesty says regulators are ill-equipped, ill-trained and ill-funded. 
Amnesty notes that Shell Petroleum is not the only oil company polluting the Niger Delta. Last year, Agip Oil, a subsidiary of the Italian company ENI, reported 474 spills. Shell reported 207. 
Amnesty says Agip also blames oil theft for the spills but offers no proof. The rights group says the sheer number of incidents is “indefensible for a responsible operator.”
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta.

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