Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is one of the many global corporations, especially those based in Europe, that profess to be devoted to sustainability in their operations. Shell claims that its commitment in this area dates back to 1997.
For most large corporations, these assertions of environmental virtue are dubious at best. In the case of Shell, they are especially far-fetched, given the company’s history in countries such as Nigeria.
In the early 1990s Shell began to face protests over its oil operations in Nigeria. In 1994 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, then led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, began blockading contractors working on Shell’s facilities to bring attention to the large number of pipeline ruptures, gas flaring and other forms of contamination that were occurring in the Ogoniland region. The group described Shell’s operations as “environmental terrorism.”
The Nigerian government, a partner with Shell in the operations, responded to the protests with a wave of repression, including the arrest of Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995. Shell denied it was involved, but critics pointed to the role played by the company in supporting the military dictatorship. Protests against the company continued.
A lawsuit brought on behalf of the Saro-Wiwa family was later filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act. In 2009, just before a trial was set to begin, the company announced that as a “humanitarian gesture” it would pay $15.5 million to the plaintiffs to settle the case. By contrast, a 2011 United Nations estimated that an environmental cleanup of the Niger Delta would cost $1 billion and take 30 years.
A separate Alien Torts Claims case brought on behalf of the Ogoni people against Royal Dutch Shell in 2002 made its way through the U.S. legal system to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 ruled that the U.S. courts could not be used to bring claims against overseas acts by foreign companies.
Another case–this one brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and four Nigerian farmers–was filed in a Dutch court, alleging that spills from Shell pipelines damaged the livelihood of the farmers. The case, which represented the first time a Dutch multinational has been sued in the Netherlands for overseas activities, was mostly dismissed in 2013 but the plaintiffs persisted.
Recently the Hague Court of Appeal finally issued a decision on the case, ruling that Shell has to pay compensation to the farmers and install equipment to prevent future pipeline leaks. The amount of the compensation has yet to be determined.
It is unlikely that Shell, which generates more than $300 billion in annual revenue and ranked number 5 in the most recent Fortune Global 500 list, will have difficulty paying whatever the Dutch court mandates. Perhaps the bigger problem is that Shell has never acknowledged responsibility for the ecological damage and still insists that the leaks were caused by sabotage.
Until it fully owns up to its culpability for human rights and environmental damage in Nigeria, Shell has no business presenting itself as practitioner of sustainability.