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Activists Urge the Nigerian Government to Delay Shells Divestment in the Niger Delta Over Environmental Concerns

Eric Dooh showing levels of oil Pollution in his village of Goi, Credit: Milieudefensie  

The Niger Delta is a region known for its ecological richness, lush mangrove forests and complex system of waterways, which many locals rely on for subsistence and livelihood. However, this ecologically diverse landscape has been constantly damaged by oil spills, related to industry activities through the extraction and transportation of oil and gas. According to the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), a Dutch non-profit, the Niger Delta is one of the most oil-polluted regions on earth.

Local activists backed by environmental groups are urging the Nigerian government to delay the sale of onshore assets, valued at $2.4 billion, of the Nigerian Subsidiary company of Shell Petroleum Development to Renaissance Africa Energy Company, a consortium of local energy companies in Nigeria. They believe Shell is trying to dissolve its influence and run away from its environmental and social responsibilities within the region, handing them over to others.

Lezina Mgbar, a 54-year-old healthcare worker and farmer along with other protestors took part in a weekend demonstration in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil capital. She stated that her community in Ogoniland had been seriously affected by oil spills. She told The Associated Press that “In the morning, children and women have to travel far to get water, so children often cannot get to school on time, and our farm yields are poor,” before demanding that “Shell restore our land and clean our water before any divestment.”

Scientific studies examining water sources in the delta found that along with heavy metals, in areas where there is a large amount of extraction and industry, water sources are slick with contaminants largely from high-level chemical compounds from crude oil affecting water supply in surrounding communities.

The British energy company has pioneered oil and gas extraction and transportation for nearly 100 years. During this time, they have struggled with hundreds of onshore oil spills, largely down to theft, sabotage, vandalism, militant attacks and operational issues that have led to high-profile lawsuits and costly repairs.

It’s common practice for many oil companies like Shell to blame third-party interference for their issues. However, a recent report by SOMO titled Selling Out Nigeria, Shells Irresponsible Divestment,” highlighted that these factors do not absolve them from fixing their problems. “Under Nigerian Law, Shell must clean up oil spills no matter the cause. It has failed to do so,” the report states.

Shell states that the $2.4 billion divestment deal is part of a “wider reconfiguration of the Nigerian oil and gas sector”. However, SOMO stated in their report that Shell should not be allowed to divest until they have taken “responsibility for its toxic legacy of pollution and ensures the safe decommissioning of abandoned oil infrastructure”. Shell has stated that it meticulously evaluated potential buyers' capabilities of handling these social and environmental responsibilities.

However, critics argue that transferring assets to local firms can lead to even greater risks. This is backed by Richard Steiner, an environmental consultant with a large amount of experience working in the Niger Delta. He compared the potential consequences of transferring assets to local companies without dealing with environmental and social concerns to that of the Santa Barbara River wellhead blowout, which released crude oil and gas for 38 days killing fish and destroying riverside farmland. He stated, “Many of the purchasing companies do not have the technical or financial capacity to manage these oil and gas operations safely.”

Furthermore, Nnimmo Bassey, Executive Director of the Nigerian advocacy group Health of Mother Earth Foundation said, "Shell must own up to its responsibility. This means full payment for the remediation and restoration of the polluted areas as well as reparations to the host communities. They cannot walk away from the virtually irreparable harm they have caused," Bassey stated.

Shell's exit from the Niger Delta isn’t solitary. Many western oil companies are following suit focusing on newer and more profitable operations including companies like ExxonMobil, Eni and Equinor who have made deals to sell their assets in the country in recent years. However, Shell isn’t leaving Nigeria entirely, choosing to focus more on deepwater operations instead.

The decision of whether or not Shell is allowed to divest in the Niger Delta void of its environmental and social commitment rests firmly in the hands of the Nigerian President, Bola Tinubu, who has a lot of thinking to do. The environmental footprint left by Shell is vast with locals wanting their lands restored and their water purified after decades of oil extraction has damaged their lands.

This situation also has global ramifications around the responsibilities multinational corporations have to communities in areas they operate in, particularly in the global south. There needs to be a push for responsible divestment not just around preventing environmental damage but also around social justice issues, especially in communities that have been exposed to the negative externalities brought by the extraction of oil such as the pollution of air, water resources and environmental degradation.

For communities and governments in the global south, the outcome of this battle could set a precedent for how multinational oil companies like Shell behave within their country, affecting the levels of environmental accountability and social responsibility they can get away with.



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