Shell Underestimated Nigeria Oil Spills by Over 2,400%, Leaked Documents Reveal

Oil spill
A man walks as crude oil spills from a pipeline in Dadabili, Niger state April 2, 2011. Afolabi Sotunde/ Reuters

The oil company Shell vastly underestimated the size of oil spills from its pipelines in the Niger Delta, and repeatedly ignored warnings from its own staff that the pipelines were in urgent need of maintenance, court documents exposed by human rights group Amnesty International have revealed. The failure of the company to replace the pipeline despite being told their lifespan was "non-existent or short", eventually culminated in two devastating oil spills in 2008.

The documents, exposed by Amnesty International today, were submitted to the High Court in London by Shell as part of its defence in a lawsuit against the Dutch oil company by 15,000 Nigerians from Bodo, mostly local farmers and fishermen, in relation to compensation claims resulting from the spills.

Shell has consistently maintained that only 4,000 barrels of oil were spilt as a result of the burst pipeline - 1,640 barrels in the first spill and 2,503 in the second, despite repeated calls from Amnesty and local residents that this is a gross underestimate.

The reports used by Shell in their estimations, titled 'Joint Investigation Visit' reports, decide how much compensation a community gets, if any. The reports also determine the extent of the clean-up required.

According to Amnesty, an independent assessment published by the U.S. firm Accufacts Inc in 2012 said the total amount of oil spilt exceeded 100,000 barrels, 2,400% more than that claimed by Shell.

Leigh Day, the law firm representing the Bodo community, say that the the oil spill could be closer to 600,000 barrels, according to independent analysts.

Following the release of their defence documents by Amnesty, Shell acknowledged that the size of the spills is likely to have been substantially higher than their previous estimates.

However, Amnesty believes they have long known this. "Amnesty International firmly believes Shell knew the Bodo data were wrong," said Audrey Gaughran, director for global issues at Amnesty. "If it did not it was scandalously negligent – we repeatedly gave them evidence showing they had dramatically underestimated the spills."

"Shell has refused to engage with us and only now that they find themselves in a UK court have they been forced to come clean," Gaughran said.

As a result of the underestimates in the reports, hundreds of thousands of people are likely to have been underpaid compensation, and many may not have received any at all.

"These spill investigation reports have cheated whole communities out of proper compensation." Gaughran said. "For years Shell has dictated the assessment of volume spilled and damage caused in spill investigation reports, now these reports aren't worth the paper they're written on," she said.

The documents also show that Shell was advised by its own staff in 2002 that the 30-year-old pipeline passing through a network of impoverished Nigerian communities desperately needed replacing.

The court papers include a note by Shell made following a 2002 internal study which says: "the remaining life of most of the [Shell] Oil Trunklines is more or less non-existent or short, while some sections contain major risk and hazard".

Another document, an internal Shell project report dated February 2002, said the company should "initiate an immediate replacement" of the trans-Niger pipeline.

It wasn't until six years later, in November 2008, that the company publicly admitted that there was something wrong when the 24-inch trans-Niger pipeline burst twice within two days, releasing thousands of barrels of oil.

Following the UK court case, Shell has agreed to carry out another investigation into the amount of oil spilled in the two oil spills, but will carry out the investigation itself.

"They will be investigating into their own misconduct, and this will bring exactly the same problems", an Amnesty spokesperson told Newsweek.

Speaking to The Guardian, a spokesperson for Shell described the two spills as "deeply regrettable". "We want to compensate fairly and quickly those who have been genuinely affected and to clean up all areas where oil has been spilled from our facilities," he said.

"As part of the litigation process, we asked satellite remote sensing experts, hydrologists and specialists in mangrove ecology to assess how the Bodo waterways and mangroves were impacted and other relevant information addressing the question of the volume of these spills, and the extent of the damage. Having reviewed their findings, we accept that the total volume of oil released as a result of the two operational spills is likely to have exceeded the joint investigation visit estimates."

Whilst the company have taken responsibility for the two 2008 spills, they have repeatedly blamed oil thieves for the many other incidents that have occurred along its pipelines and have refused to pay more than £15m compensation.

An Amnesty spokesperson told Newsweek: "Only two cases of oil spills in the Niger Delta have ever been taken to court, and today we have revealed that in both cases the oil company has grossly underestimated the extent of the problem. You can only imagine how this applies to the many other incidences that have occurred over the years."

"We could possibly be looking at hundreds of thousands of more people seeking compensation", he said.

In a statement, Shell told the BBC: "We are in the process of preparing for a trial in May 2015 regarding the Bodo operational spills, at which time internal documents produced by SPDC relating to the Trans Niger Pipeline (TNP) will be set in their proper context for review by the court."