Worldwide concern regarding a 2011 leak at one of Royal Dutch Shell’s (NYSE:RDSA)(NYSE:RDSB) oil fields in Nigeria has gained critical mass; so far this week, the company has been trending on Twitter.
Short phrases like “Payback time for Big Oil,” “Justice for the people,” and “Tell parliament to end oil impunity” have littered the company’s feed over the past few days.
Many of the tweets include a link to a petition sponsored by the advocacy group Avaaz, urging the Nigerian Parliament to fine Shell $5 billion for the 2011 Bonga Oil Spill. In the petition, Avaaz describes Shell as a “giant oil polluter” responsible for a spill that “devastated the lives of millions of people.”
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Nigeria’s oil regulator, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, made a similar request the legislative body in July.
Last December’s spill, which was caused by a failure in the company’s oil export hose, leaked 40,000 barrels into the Atlantic Ocean, covering approximately 950 square kilometers of water. While the oil company has maintained that no environmental damage occurred because the spill was contained before it reached the shore, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency says otherwise.
“It has a direct social impact on the livelihood of people in the river areas whose primary occupation is fishing,” the agency told the Telegraph.
Furthermore, the United Nations Environment Program conducted an independent assessment of the environmental damage last year, and reported that Shell had not done nearly enough to clean up the spill.
In its defense, Shell has argued that the damage resulted from sabotage, and there is no basis for a fine.
The case has even reached a civil court in The Hague. Reuters reported in early October that four Nigerian villagers, along with the environmental activist group Friends of the Earth, sued Shell for polluting the land and waterways around their homes in the Niger Delta region.
“My community is a ghost land as a result of the devastation,” said Eric Dooh, one plaintiff in the case. “Today people have respiratory problems and are getting sick.”
According Reuters, the villagers’ lawyer, Channa Samkalden told the court that Shell had failed to maintain its pipelines or prevent pollution. “It was insufficient maintenance, not sabotage, that was responsible for the leaks,” she said.
The verdict expected to be delivered at the end of January.
While the case has no precedent in the Netherlands, other major oil companies have been the object of similar complaints. Chevron (NYSE:CVX) was fined $18.2 billion by the Ecuadorian government for the pollution that Texaco, an oil company bought by Chevron, caused in the Amazon region from 1964 to 1992.