Image: Oil damage in Bodo, Nigeria
Courtesy Leigh Day & Co
A photograph taken by a representative of the law firm Leigh Day & Co. last July shows John Sunday Belbari, a resident of Bodo, Nigeria, standing on the spot that used to be his fishponds. staff and news service reports
updated 8/4/2011 2:26:57 PM ET 2011-08-04T18:26:57

Shell and Nigeria's government contributed to 50 years of pollution in a region of the Niger Delta that could need the world's largest ever oil cleanup, the United Nations said in a report Thursday, adding that the work would take up to 30 years and require an initial tab estimated at $1 billion.

The report came after Shell agreed not to oppose a move by one delta community to have their pollution claims heard by a British court, potentially opening itself up to bigger financial damages.

Daniel Leader, a lawyer for the Bodo people, told that the case was the first of its kind because it would be heard in Britain, where payouts can be higher and cases tend to get wider media coverage.

"What is highly significant is that Shell have agreed to do this through the jurisdiction of English courts," he said.

The United Nations Environment Program analyzed the damage oil pollution has done in Ogoniland, a region in the oil-rich creeks, swamps and waterways of the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa's largest oil and gas industry.

Shell and the Nigerian state-oil firm own most of the oil infrastructure in Ogoniland, although Shell in 1993 was forced out by communities that said it caused pollution that destroyed their fishing environment.

Shell stopped pumping oil from Ogoniland after a campaign, led by writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was later hanged by the Nigerian military government, provoking international outrage.

"The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world's most wide-ranging and long term oil cleanup exercise ever undertaken if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health," the UNEP report stated.

"Control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: the Shell Petroleum Development Company's own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues."

The UNEP report said 10 out of the 15 investigated sites which SPDC said had been completely remediated still had pollution exceeding the SPDC and government remediation values.

Shell says most oil spills in the Niger Delta are caused by oil theft and sabotage attacks but says it cleans up whatever the cause.

"Oil spills in the Niger Delta are a tragedy, and SPDC takes them very seriously," SPDC Managing Director Mutiu Sunmonu said in a statement on its website. "Concerted effort is needed on the part of the Nigerian government, working with oil companies and others, to end the blight of illegal refining and oil theft in the Niger Delta. This is the major cause of the environmental damage."

UNEP said Ogoniland communities are exposed to hydrocarbons every day as thick black oil floats around the creeks, while the impact on vegetation and fishing areas has been "disastrous."

In one community, drinking water was contaminated with benzene, a substance known to cause cancer, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization guidelines. The site was close to a pipeline owned by Nigeria's state-oil firm NNPC, the report said.

"We will undertake any cleanup. It doesn't mean we are culpable. Pipeline vandalism, by the very communities who are affected, is the major issue," a NNPC spokesman said.

The U.N. also found one area where an oil spill 40 years ago hadn't been cleaned.

"The Ogoni people live with this pollution every minute of every day, 365 days a year," the report said. "Since average life expectancy in Nigeria is less than 50 years, it is a fair assumption that most members of the current Ogoniland community have lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives."

The report also said that children born in Ogoniland are affected by the oil pollution daily, "as the odor of hydrocarbons pervades the air day in, day out."

Some environmentalists say as much as 550 million gallons of oil have poured into the Niger River Delta during 50 years of production — at a rate roughly comparable to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year. Even today, oil laps up in brackish delta creeks in Ogoniland, creating a black ring around the coastlines.

Shell helped fund the U.N. investigation, leading to criticism by some environmentalists that the report wouldn't take on the oil giant many demonize in the region. The report said damage can be caused by failing oil pipelines, as well as by thieves who tap into the lines to steal crude oil — a worsening problem in Ogoniland. The report said U.N. officials saw such theft during the day and suggested there could be "collusion" with government officials.

"It was not within (the U.N.'s) scope to identify the cause of the individual spills, nor is it scientifically possible to detect the original cause of spills after an unknown time period," the report said.

It also remains difficult for companies to operate in the delta, as criminal gangs and militants still operate and take foreign workers hostage for ransom. The U.N. report noted that it had trouble accessing some areas of Ogoniland and found evidence that unknown parties had tampered with some of the U.N.'s equipment.

Asked about the proposed trust fund, a Shell spokeswoman declined to comment. The company issued a statement saying it "will study the contents carefully and will comment further once we have done so."

While Shell does not operate in Ogoniland anymore, its pipelines and other infrastructure remain and still suffer spillages and sabotage attacks.

UNEP's report is the most detailed scientific study on any area in the Niger Delta, UNEP and activist groups said. It was paid for partly by Shell after a request by the government.

The findings were undertaken over a 14-month period, surveyed 76 miles of pipeline rights of way, reviewing more than 5,000 medical records and engaging more than 23,000 people at local meetings.

"What the world did not have on the table is a peer-reviewed scientific assessment that lays out the magnitude of the issue … the depths in which oil has percolated," said UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall. "Basically in some areas the oil has gotten down 5 meters (15 feet) into the drinking supply of tens of thousands of people."

The report recommends that three new institutions be set up to support environmental restoration, which would include a $1 billion fund, contributed to by the oil companies and government for the first five years of the cleanup.

Amnesty International, which is actively involved in Niger Delta environmental issues, said the report proved that Shell was responsible for the pollution.

"This report proves Shell has had a terrible impact in Nigeria, but has got away with denying it for decades, falsely claiming they work to best international standards," said Amnesty International Global Issues Director Audrey Gaughran.

"Shell must put its hands up, and face the fact that it has to deal with the damage it has caused. Trying to hide behind the actions of others, when Shell is the most powerful actor on the scene, simply won't wash," Gaughran added.

Earlier Thursday, it emerged that Shell had accepted that a British court had jurisdiction in villager claims for compensation for damages caused by two oil spills from pipelines controlled by SPDC, in which Shell is the lead but minority partner.

One source close to the case said the cost of cleaning up the spill and compensating those affected has been estimated by some experts as being in the region of 250 million pounds.

Shell has been reducing its focus on onshore Nigeria, selling fields, following difficulties in the delta.

In the court case filed in Britain, Shell conceded liability and agreed to proceed under the jurisdiction of the English courts last month, Leader told

The two spills in 2008 and 2009 at Bodo, Ogoniland, devastated the 69,000-person community, Leader said.

"The mood music is changing — oil companies are going to have to start no longer employing a double standard for the developing world and apply the same standards for America and Europe," he told

Protest groups have increasingly tried to seek compensation against western oil companies in the firms' home jurisdictions.

Ben Amunwa of the British group PLATFORM, which monitors international energy companies, said that depending on the compensation that is decided in this case, the agreement could usher in a flood of claims from communities in the region.

"The potential in this decision is that Shell could face a mountain of claims," Amunwa explained.

The British agreement follows decades of damage to the environment in Nigeria, according to rights groups.

The lawyers and rights groups have said the amount of oil in these two spillages alone was approximately 20 percent of the amount that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico following the BP  disaster.

"BP did more in 6-months for the U.S. communities than Shell has done in 50 years for the Ogoniland," said Amnesty International's Gaughran.

A spokesman for Shell's Nigerian arm, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, said in a statement sent to that the firm had "always acknowledged that the two spills which affected the Bodo community, and which are the subject of this legal action, were operational."

"SPDC is committed to cleaning up all spills when they occur, no matter what the cause," he said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: World's thirst for oil

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  1. Spilled crude oil is seen near Bodo, Nigeria, on June 24, 2010. Bodo villagers have sued Shell over two recent spills, and the company in July 2011 agreed not to oppose their efforts to have the claims heard in a British court, which could expose Shell to greater financial damage. A U.N. report released on Aug. 4, 2011, said oil pollution in the Niger Delta would take 30 years to clean up and that the initial tab could be $1 billion. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Greenpeace activists climb ladders on the Leiv Eiriksson drilling rig, operated by British oil explorer Cairn Energy, 112 miles off the Greenland coast, on June 4, 2011. Greenpeace activists were removed from the rig after suspending themselves from the Leiv Eiriksson, but days later, some 18 activists boarded the Leiv Eiriksson and were taken to meet the drill manager. (Steve Morgan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An oil tank burns in the port of Gibraltar on May 31, 2011. The cruise ship Independence of the Seas was nearby but pulled out to sea for safety. (Douglas Cumming / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pedestrians run from the scene of a fire ravaging four fuel tankers on Lagos's Ibadan highway on May 11, 2011. Two people lost their lives after two tankers loaded with fuel collided and the ensuing blaze spread to two other tankers on the Lagos-Ibadan highway, a gateway to other parts of the country. The accident stalled traffic around Lagos. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An aerial view of an illegal oil refinery Ogoniland outside Port Harcourt in Nigeria's Delta region on March 24, 2011. Crude oil thieves -- known locally as "bunkerers" -- have been a fact of life for years in Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, puncturing pipelines and costing Nigeria and foreign oil firms millions of dollars in lost revenues each year. (Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mammoet Co. workers move a reduced-size megaload, carried on 18-axles remotely controlled, into a new storage yard at the Port of Lewiston on May 9, 2011 in Lewiston, Idaho. Several dozen of the large modules of oil-processing equipment will be stored there, awaiting permits to be transported on U.S. Highway 95 through Moscow to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta, Canada. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. NATO oil tankers in Karachi, Pakistan prepare to depart for Afghanistan on May 3, 2011. According to official figures, 80 percent of NATO supplies are transported to Afghanistan via Pakistan. (Rehan Khan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A laborer carries an empty oil container at a wholesale fuel market in Kolkata April 7, 2011. India's fuel price index climbed 13.13 percent in the year to March 26, government data on Thursday showed. (Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Natural gas storage tanks burn at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city, Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo March 11, 2011, following the massive 8.9 magnitude quake. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Filipino vendor arranges bottles of gasoline and engine oil sold at a roadside stall in Quezon City, eastern Manila, Philippines on March 2, 2011. The Philippines is aiming to increase its current inventory of crude and other oil products as part of measures to manage the impact of the continuing political unrest in the Middle East and north Africa, according to the government's energy department. World oil prices are being affected as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's grip on power in the OPEC-member nation has been challenged by violent protests calling for his resignation. (Rolex Dela Pena / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A picture taken on April 7, 2011 from a helicopter shows Russian LUKOIL ice-resistant fixed platform LSP-1, built at the Astrakhansky Korabel shipyard, intended to drill and operate wells and collect and pre-treat reservoir content at Korchagins oil field in the Russian sector of the Caspian Sea some 120 miles outside Astrakhan. The field's productivity of oil and gas condensate will peak at 2.3 million tonnes oil and 1.2 bcm gas per year. (Mikhail Mordasov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rebels pray in front of an anti-aircraft gun near a refinery in Ras Lanuf on March 8, 2011. Libyan government troops, tanks and warplanes attacked rebels on the western and eastern fronts on Tuesday, pressing their campaign to crush an insurrection against Muammar Gaddafi. In the east, a swathe of which is under rebel control, air strikes targetted rebel positions behind the frontline around the oil town of Ras Lanuf on the Mediterranean coast. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Protestors holds signs across the street from a working natural gas well drilling in Flower Mound, Texas on Monday, Nov. 29, 2010. Residents in suburban Texas and rural Pennsylvania are living with the nastiness and rancor erupting in communities nationwide over the volatile issue of hydraulic fracturing, a form of gas drilling. (Lm Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Floor hands and engineers adjust a down hole motor used for directional drilling on a natural gas drilling platform on December 18, 2008 in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth, Texas. Drilled in a commercial area adjacent to the Interstate-35W expressway, the 11,600 foot well is owned by Chesapeake Energy Corporation. It's the first of 10-13 wells expected to be drilled on the leased site. Urban wells are required to be 600 feet from the nearest homes, schools, churches, hospitals and parks. Multiple wells on a site require less distance. In Texas, state law gives owners of mineral rights the prerogative over owners of surface land. One of the largest natural gas fields in the US, the Barnett Shale formation, discovered in the early 1950's, covers 5,000 square miles underlying the Dallas-Fort Worth area and is proven to hold 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Barnett Shale is known as a tight gas reservoir in hard shale rock and requires hydraulic fracturing technology to properly release the underground gas. Drilling in urban areas of Fort Worth has been a contentious issue between city councils, local residents, large land holders and influential energy companies. Residents have been objecting to heavy truck traffic of 18-wheel service vehicles, road destruction, noise, dust and waste water removal. Fort Worth has been called the guinea pig for natural gas drilling in close proximity to residential areas. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Louisiana coastal director Garret Graves diggs up oiled soil in a coastal marsh on April 19, 2011, at Middle Ground in southern Louisiana. A year after the BP oil spill coated Gulf coast beaches and marshes, BP claims that most of the oil has been removed. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries says, however, that much of the coastal cleaning has been superficial, as the oil has seeped into the soil, killing marshes and further eroding the state's damaged Mississippi Delta ecosystem. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. The oil rig was located 42 miles southeast of Venice, La. where it drilled through 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 feet underneath the seabed. (U.S Coast Guard via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A kayaker stops to photograph a gash, approximately 90-feet long, in the hull of the container ship Cosco Busan in Oakland, Calif., on November 10, 2007. The vessel struck the Bay Bridge spilling about 58,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of people and a fleet of oil-skimming boats wprked to clean up San Francisco Bay's worst oil spill in nearly two decades, as rescue teams raced to save hundreds of seabirds. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A man walks along oil pipelines belonging to Italian oil company Agip in Obrikom, Nigeria, March 6, 2006. Angola is joining OPEC, African oil exploration is booming and China is investing. The stampede for African oil has continued, even as militant attacks in some countries and precarious governments in others make returns uncertain. (George Osodi) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. An Iranian technician works at the Balal offshore oil platform in the Gulf waters, in the Gulf on the edge of Qatar's territorial waters, 16 May 2004. Iran's Vice President Mohammad Ali Aref officially inaugurated the Balal offshore oil field developed by French major Total together with BowValley of Canada and Italy's Agip. The Balal field is currently producing 40,000 barrels per day and was developed under a 310-million-dollar agreement signed in 1999. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) oil ri sits near the shores of the state of Campeche, Mexico,in the Gulf of Mexico, September 4, 2006. Mexico on August 20, 2007 put part of its Caribbean coast on red alert and shut down its offshore oil facilities as Hurricane Dean barreled toward the Yucatan Peninsula after killing at least six people and battering Jamaica. Projections had the hurricane making landfall about 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Cancun. (Eunice Adorno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Trains haul oil tank cars at a railway station in PetroChina's Daqing oil field in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, November 5, 2007. Chinese oil majors will push back maintenance work and curb exports to guarantee diesel supplies after the country's worst fuel crunch in four years, the country's top economic planner said. (Stringer Shanghai / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Oil field workers work at a well head in Sinopec's Jianghan oil field on the outskirts of Guanghua, central China's Hubei province, November 5, 2007. Chinese oil majors will push back maintenance work and curb exports to guarantee diesel supplies after the country's worst fuel crunch in four years, the country's top economic planner said. (Stringer Shanghai / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. An oil installation in Saudi Arabia's northeastern Gulf port of Jubail, June 1, 2004. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will increase oil output this month by 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) over its OPEC quota to help ease record prices, Oil Minister Obeid bin Saif al-Nassiri announced June 2, 2004. Crude oil futures in New York surged on June 1 to a record closing price of 42.33 dollars a barrel, as a deadly weekend attack in Saudi Arabia heightened fears about terrorist disruptions to energy supplies. (Bilal Qabalan / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Oil refinery Complex Jose de Anzoategui, 200 miles east of Caracas, Venezuela. The complex, that makes refined crude from the heavy oil of the Orinoco Belt, is a joint venture between Venezuelan state owned PDVSA and the foreign companies Chevron, British Petrolum, Total and Statoil. On May 1, 2007 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez changed the stock holdings of the complex to make PDVSA, with 60 percent of the stocks, in control of the participating companies. (Diego Giudice / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A bucketwheel once used by Syncrude in the oil sand fields to move the sand to the extraction plant lies idle, June 12, 2007 in Fort McMurray Canada. The development of Canada's oil sands is laying waste to its great northern forest and western plains, say critics who point to skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions, diverted rivers and razed backwoods. And the devastation can only get worse, they say, as energy companies pump billions of dollars into new projects to triple local oil production to some 3.0 million barrels per day within the next decade. (David Boily / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline on remote wind-scraped flatlands in Alaska's north coast near the Beaufort Sea is seen Monday, March 13, 2006. Lawmakers will question BP's top U.S. official at a potentially contentious hearing Wednesday, May 16, 2007 focused on whether the company neglected necessary pipeline maintenance before oil spills in Alaska. (Rick Bowmer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The Syncrude extraction facility in the northern Alberta oil sand fields is reflected in the pool of water being recycled for re-use in the extraction process, June 14, 2007 in Fort McMurray, Canada. With world oil prices hovering at near nine-month highs and global energy firms flush with cash, analysts are predicting that control of Canada's booming oil sands sector could soon fall into foreign hands. Analysts said Canadian companies such as UTS Energy, Canadian Oil Sands, Opti Canada and Western Oil Sands with properties in northern Alberta are likely takeover targets. (David Boily / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. The Discoverer Deep Seas drillship sits on station off the coast of Louisiana as Chevron drills for oil in the Gulf of Mexico March 28, 2006. As budget planning gets under way for Gulf Coast states, the states are realizing how much spending freedom they have with royalties from an offshore drilling expansion . They can use the money to pave roads, erect bridges, lay water lines or finish just about any other public works projects they can link to the coast. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A picture taken September 13, 2006 shows an oil tanker supplied with oil at the main oil port in Bijaya City some 210km east of Algiers. The 50 billion dollar 2005 oil revenue is considered Algeria's largest source of national income. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Workers load a fish processing machine with Tilapia fishes at the ''Aquafinca Saint Peter Fish'', in the village El Borboton, 200 km North of Tegucigalpa, July 23, 2007. The company began 5 years ago processing Tilapia fish for the food industry, but now they started processing them to produce biodiesel, becoming the world leader in biodiesel from animal origin. (Elmer Martinez / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Guests and members of the media in attedence as Imperium Renewables open the largest biodiesel production facility in the United States at the Port of Grays Harbor, August 15, 2007 in Hoquiam, Washington. The opening was presented as an opportunity to replace dependence on foreign oil imports with cleaner, renewable fuels while also providing benefits to the local community and agricultural industries. (Kevin Casey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on August 5, 2005. An environmental group opposing the first commercial U.S. oil sands project is appealing to Utah water quality regulators to reconsider its decision to permit the plan. The Moab-based group Living Rivers has been fighting the project, claiming it could contaminate an underground aquifer. (Jeff Mcintosh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A labourer works at a branch factory of China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNPC) in Lanzhou. CNPC has become the first Chinese firm to control a Canadian oil sands project after winning exploration rights to the resources in Alberta. In 2005, China National Offshore Oil Corp agreed to acquire a 16.69 percent stake in Canada's MEG Energy Corp, for 150 million Canadian dollars. The later owns oil sand leases in 52 sections totalling 32,800 acres in Alberta. Sinopec, Asia's largest refiner, also agreed to pay 150 million Canadian dollars for a 40 percent stake in a joint venture producing synthetic crude from western Canada oil sands. The Shanghai newspaper cited officials with the China National Petroleum Corp as saying that oil sands, which are more expensive to process than light crude, are viable as long as crude prices are above 30 dollars per barrel. At an estimated 173 billion barrels, Canada's oil sands rank second behind Saudi Arabia in petroleum reserves at 230 billion barrels but they were long neglected due to high extraction costs. Since 2000, however, soaring crude prices and improved extraction technology have persuaded several foreign companies to invest billions of dollars. (Cao Zhizheng / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Two Iraq oil workers walk through the Dura oil refinery outside Baghdad Saturday, February 22, 2003. Iraq's oil reserves are the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. (Jerome Delay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. In this undated photo provided by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, caribou graze on a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The U.S. Senate on Wednesday, March 16, 2005, voted to open the Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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