Shell Oil's Nigeria operation plagued with spills, violence

Ask almost any environmental activist about Shell and he'll point to Nigeria, in West Africa.

Environmentalists say decades of oil production have left the Niger Delta one of the most polluted regions in the world. Shell is Nigeria's biggest operator, with more than 50 years of oil production there, and it's a main target of activists' wrath.

The political and social situation there is far more complex than anything Shell will encounter in Alaska.

Shell maintains that sabotage by rebels and spills from oil thieves drilling into pipelines or opening wells are mainly to blame for the pollution. Some areas of the country are so violent it's difficult to safely reach the infrastructure for repairs, Shell says.

Other assessments say aging and neglected equipment, substandard practices and insufficient cleanup efforts are also factors.

Rick Steiner is a former University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and marine conservation biologist who has been to Nigeria five or six times to study oil pollution there. He is a long-time oil industry watchdog who has criticized Shell's operations and practices in Russia, Nigeria and Alaska. He resigned his UAF post in 2009 after he publicly criticized Shell sponsorship of a university forum on oil drilling and fishing in Bristol Bay, and the university cut off his federal funding.

Nigerians have seen their land, drinking water and fishing grounds ruined, but haven't shared in the huge oil profits taken in by both the oil producers and the Nigerian government, Steiner said.

Shell's Nigerian operations in shallow water and onshore are through Shell Petroleum Development Company. The Nigerian government owns a 55 percent stake in the joint venture, while Shell owns 30 percent and two smaller companies own the rest.

A group of conservationists, including Steiner, and the Nigerian Ministry of Environment concluded in 2006 that the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez volume of oil spilled every year in the Niger Delta. Much of it was from old, corroded and poorly maintained pipelines, according to the report for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

"The environmental degradation and economic mismanagement feeds the social and economic despair in the region, and thus continues to manifest in epidemic violence and social unrest," Steiner wrote in December 2006 in a request that the United Nations lead a restoration effort.

The United Nations undertook a study of oil pollution in one troubled area, Nigeria's Ogoniland region, that wrapped up in August.

The cost of cleanup will be at least $1 billion and will take 30 years from the time ongoing pollution is stopped, the United Nation's new report on the effect of oil pollution in Ogoniland concludes.

Local activists drew world attention on the region in the early '90s. One Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, criticized Shell for its environmental practices and the Nigerian government for failing to enforce its own laws, and organized others. He led a protest march in early 1993 that drew a crowd estimated at 300,000, according to various published reports.

That year, Shell abruptly pulled out of Ogoniland, essentially abandoning its facilities, the U.N. report says.

Two years later, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed in what activists called "judicial murder." Their families sued Shell in the United States, and in 2009 Shell settled for $15.5 million. The company said the money was a compassionate payment, and it was time to move on.

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