According to The Guardian’s John Vidal, the UN is set to report that Shell is responsible for just 10% of the oil spilt in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region over the last 40 years. Time to lay off Shell, or time to wheel out conspiracy theories?
Here’s what Vidal says:
“A three-year investigation by the United Nations will almost entirely exonerate Royal Dutch Shell for 40 years of oil pollution in the Niger delta, causing outrage among communities who have long campaigned to force the multinational to clean up its spills and pay compensation.”
Of course, he slips in that Shell paid for the research (though it was environmentalists who campaigned to make “polluters” pay for such reports). He quotes Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends the Earth International and director of Environmental Rights Action, saying:
“It is incredible that the UN says that 90% is caused by communities. The UNEP assessment is being paid for by Shell. Their conclusions may be tailored to satisfy their client. We monitor spills regularly and our observation is the direct opposite of what UNEP is planning to report.”
But it beggars belief that a 100-strong multi-national team of UN investigators could be bribed or influenced by a research budget of $10 million from Shell. The report, it seems, will find that the majority of the spillage and environmental degradation was caused by locals, as Vidal reports, “illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines,” a practice known as bunkering.
I have plenty of reservations. The main one is the casual assumption by so many journalists that there is a handy split (let alone a 90/10 split) between “the communities” or “communities” and Shell. The official report is not yet out, but it is clear to me that the distribution of blame cannot credibly be split 90/10. That’s because Shell, however influential, is just one of many players in the region in the oil business. For a start it is partnered with the state oil company. On the “other” side, too, there are myriad complex relationships between every sort of “official” power, the “communities”, and criminal gangs.
There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that criminality both at a local level (from gangs to corrupt officials) and at a national governmental level (within the oil ministry and its state-run companies) must take most of the blame for the region’s plight.
Here’s what Mike Cowing, the head of a UN team, told Vidal by email:
“UNEP is not responsible for allocating responsibility for the number of spills being found in Ogoniland. Rather, we are focusing on the science. The figures referred to are those of the ministry of the environment and the department of petroleum resources.
“This is a Nigerian issue, not a UNEP issue. However, I would add that from our extensive field work throughout Ogoniland we have witnessed, on a daily basis, very large scale bunkering operations.
“It’s very controversial. We cannot say whether a particular spill is from one cause or another. Our observation is that there is a serious [bunkering ] problem. I am being seen to be siding with the oil companies, but I am not.
“We were provided with the official spill site list. This is given by the oil companies themselves but is endorsed by the [government] agencies. We are not on the side of the oil companies.”
According to Vidal, the UN team took 1,000 soil and water tests, and other investigations were carried out, and hundreds of communities consulted. This scoping of the extent of the problem will most likely form the basis for focusing the clean up effort that Shell looks set to fund also.
Will this work? I think it might, up to a point. But on the ground it is most likely doomed to fail. That’s because the scale and complexity of the problem in a region of 30 million people is beyond Shell, and currently beyond the Nigerian government’s ability to solve.
It was always simplistic (and mostly entirely without foundation) of the likes of Amnesty International to accuse Shell of human rights abuses and causing mass poverty on top of the pollution in the region.
However, the UN report looks set to give Shell what it badly needs: a shield to defend itself in the West against the nonsense it has suffered from campaigners over many years. That’s got to be good for its reputation and PR. The rest of the solution rests with the Nigerian people.
Having said that, the question remains about just how honest Shell is going to be about the realities it faces on the ground. Those are realities which should urge Shell to set realistic expectations, or risk the issue blowing up in its face at a later date on a greater scale, the way it did for BP with its Beyond Petroleum charade.