Shell Games in Nigeria
After fifty-three years of drilling oil in Nigeria, Shell has no intention of leaving. [Editor's note: In a potentially momentous development, the British Sunday Times reported on December 20, after this story went to press, that Shell is seeking to sell off up to $5 billion of its oilfields in the Niger Delta. A Shell spokesman declined to comment on the report.] But as local and international pressure has mounted, the company has declared its commitment to protecting the environment of the Delta. Shell's Nigeria website states that the objective of its environmental program is to "painstakingly minimise and, where possible, completely eliminate all negative impacts and footprints." Shell further assures that "advanced technology, new ways of operating and partnerships are helping to manage our environmental impact as we contribute to meeting the world's growing energy needs."
If Shell is serious, there are two areas where it can start. First, it must extinguish its gas flares once and for all. The company is making progress toward reductions; in addition to its $3 billion commitment to stop flaring, it recently announced that it had spent $1 billion in the past eighteen months on a project in Bayelsa that will use natural gas that would otherwise be flared. Shell blames the Nigerian government for its inability to meet deadlines and estimates that it will require an additional $3 billion to extinguish its flares for good. But by definition, flaring occurs at sites where oil is being extracted. The price tag quoted by the company for ending its flares in Nigeria represents less than 10 percent of Royal Dutch Shell's 2008 profits, which soared to a record high of $31.4 billion.
Second, Shell needs to revisit its approach to oil spills. Acts of sabotage against pipelines are common in the Delta, but so are failures of Shell's infrastructure, much of which dates back to the company's initial expansion in the 1960s. According to Shell data, the company's equipment and errors were responsible for fifty-three spills in 2008, a total that would lead to immediate action anywhere in the developed world.
When spills do occur, Shell needs to clean up its act on cleanups. That means putting an end to the destructive practice of burning spilled crude. It also entails promptly clamping leaks, conducting real remediation of damaged sites and holding contractors accountable for their work. Shell's routine stonewalling on compensation for victims of spills and contamination remains another major source of popular anger in the Delta.
Should Shell fail to act voluntarily, the Wiwa case has wedged open the door for a new means of forcing accountability. Though the Alien Tort Claims Act applies to human rights violations and not to ecological damage, Shell faces a flurry of cases for environmental abuse at tribunals from Nigeria to the Netherlands to the court of the Economic Community of West African States. These cases seek to achieve for the environment what the Wiwa struggle accomplished for human rights: international outcry, putting Shell's bottom line at stake and ultimately forcing a higher level of caution.
The truce that has emerged in the Delta also offers a historic opportunity for the groups in the region to adopt a new approach. Following the amnesty period and federal revenue-sharing proposal, Shell offered to provide demobilized militants with job training and financial assistance to persuade them against returning to the creeks. Shell's initiative coincides with its efforts to ensure that ailing Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua renews its operating licenses. Michael Watts says he is skeptical that the proposals transcend the usual politics of oil money dispensation. But he maintains that for Nigeria, the peace opening represents "one of the most important political moments since the conclusion of its civil war in 1970." The key, says Watts, is whether the state can develop democratic and accountable institutions to serve the Niger Delta.
This role of the Nigerian government is the critical variable in the equation. Protecting the Delta's environment will require stronger regulatory institutions and a groundswell of political will. A number of bills currently before Nigeria's Congress seek to raise environmental standards and tip the balance of power away from the oil companies. A bill that would move the gas flaring deadline up to December 2010 passed the Senate in July, and the hotly debated Petroleum Industry Bill aims to reshape Nigeria's oil industry by creating a state-owned commercial oil company similar to Brazil's Petrobras. The fate of these bills--and whether they are implemented if passed--will mark critical tests of Nigeria's independence and willingness to take on the oil companies.
One contributor to the government's efforts is Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., the son of the slain activist. A special adviser to the president on climate change, he is developing a new legal and regulatory framework to address the climate challenge. Inspired by the results of his fourteen-year legal battle with the oil giant, the soft-spoken Saro-Wiwa is seeking to bring environmental accountability to Nigeria one regulation at a time.
"Don't get me wrong, a business like Shell is a ruthless organization whose only interest is bottom line," says Saro-Wiwa. If the company can save money by dodging its environmental responsibilities, he continues, there is little doubt that it will pollute. "Their only responsibility is back to their shareholders," he declares. "But we need to change that."