On Wednesday, the United Kingdom Supreme Court delivered its ruling in favor of Shell, a leading British multinational oil and gas company, stating that it was too late for Nigerian claimants to sue its two subsidiaries over a 2011 offshore oil spill. The spill in question was estimated to have leaked around 40,000 barrels of crude oil when a tanker was loaded at Shell’s Bonga oilfield, which is located 120km off the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
Shell had disputed the allegations, claiming that the Bonga spill was dispersed offshore and did not have any adverse effects on the shoreline, according to Reuters. However, the case was one of many legal tussles that Shell has been battling with in London courts against Nigerians who live in the oil-rich Niger Delta, a region that has long been faced with pollution, conflict, and corruption related to the oil and gas industry.
Over the years, a group of 27,800 individuals and 457 communities had made several attempts to drag Shell to court, arguing that the resulting oil slick had polluted their lands and waterways, leading to the destruction of farming, fishing, drinking water, mangrove forests, and religious shrines. However, a panel of five Supreme Court justices unanimously upheld rulings by two lower courts, stating that the claimants had brought their case after the expiry of a six-year legal deadline for taking action.
The claimants’ lawyers had argued that the ongoing consequences of the pollution represented a “continuing nuisance,” a type of civil tort, which would have meant that the deadline did not apply. However, Justice Andrew Burrows, during the ruling, stated that “The Supreme Court rejects the claimants’ submission. There was no continuing nuisance in this case.” Reuters reported that while it was only two Nigerians that were appellants in the Supreme Court case, the verdict would be applicable to the thousands of other claimants.
In response to the ruling, a spokesperson for Shell said that the Supreme Court’s decision had brought to an end all legal claims in English courts related to the spill. “While the 2011 Bonga spill was highly regrettable, it was swiftly contained and cleaned up offshore,” the spokesperson added. However, a lawyer for the Nigerian appellants did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
It is worth noting that the Supreme Court has previously ruled against Shell in another case involving pollution in the Niger Delta. In February 2021, it allowed a group of 42,500 farmers and fishermen from the Ogale and Bille communities to sue Shell over spills, and that case is currently going through the High Court. In a separate case, Shell agreed in 2015, after a protracted legal battle in London, to pay out 55 million pounds ($70 million) to the delta’s Bodo community in compensation for two spills.
The ruling is likely to have significant implications for other similar cases and legal tussles in the Niger Delta and beyond. It is also expected to reignite the ongoing debate about the role of multinational companies in developing countries and the need for more robust regulations and accountability frameworks to protect the rights of affected communities and the environment.