UK Supreme Court: Shell wins Nigerian oil spill case

The United Kingdom Supreme Court has ruled in favour of leading British multinational oil and gas company, Shell on Wednesday that it was too late for Nigerian claimants to sue its two subsidiaries over a 2011 offshore oil spill.

On December 20, 2011, there were allegations that an estimated 40,000 barrels of crude oil leaked when a tanker was loaded at Shell’s Bonga oilfield, 120km off the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

Shell disputed the allegations and said the Bonga spill was dispersed offshore and did not have adverse effects on the shoreline, according to Reuters.

The case was one of a series of legal tussles that Shell has been battling with in London courts against Nigerians who live in the oil-rich Niger Delta, a region faced with pollution, conflict and corruption connected to the oil and gas industry.

A group of 27,800 individuals and 457 communities have made several attempts to drag Shell to court, arguing that the resulting oil slick polluted their lands and waterways, destroying farming, fishing, drinking water, mangrove forests and religious shrines.

But a panel of five Supreme Court justices unanimously upheld rulings by two lower courts that found they had brought their case after the expiry of a six-year legal deadline for taking action.

The claimants’ lawyers had argued that the ongoing consequences of the pollution represented a “continuing nuisance”, a type of civil tort, which would have meant the deadline did not apply.

“The Supreme Court rejects the claimants’ submission. There was no continuing nuisance in this case,” Justice Andrew Burrows said during the ruling.

Reuters said while it was two Nigerians that were appellants in the Supreme Court case, the verdict would be applicable to the thousands of other claimants.

Shell said the Supreme Court ruling had brought to an end all legal claims in English courts related to the spill.

“While the 2011 Bonga spill was highly regrettable, it was swiftly contained and cleaned up offshore,” a Shell spokesperson said.

A lawyer for the Nigerian appellants did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled against Shell in another case involving pollution in the Niger Delta. In February 2021, it allowed a group of 42,500 farmers and fishermen from the Ogale and Bille communities to sue Shell over spills, and that case is currently going through the High Court.

In a separate case, Shell agreed in 2015 after a protracted legal battle in London to pay out 55 million pounds ($70 million) to the delta’s Bodo community in compensation for two spills.

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