Bad information: Oil spill investigations in the Niger Delta

November 7, 2013

Bad information: Oil spill investigations in the Niger Delta

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Hundreds of oil spills occur in Nigeria every year, causing significant harm to the environment, destroying local livelihoods and placing human health at serious risk. These spills are caused by corrosion, poor maintenance of oil infrastructure, equipment failure, sabotage and theft of oil. For the last decade oil companies in Nigeria – in particular Shell – have defended the scale of pollution by claiming that the vast majority of oil spills are caused by sabotage and theft of oil.

There is no legitimate basis for this claim. It relies on the outcome of an oil spill investigation process - commonly known as the Joint Investigation Visit or JIV process - in which the companies themselves are the primary investigators. This report exposes several serious deficiencies and abuses within the JIV process that render it wholly unreliable as a basis for making claims about the cause of oil spills, the volume of oil spilt or the area impacted.

The report is based on an examination of the JIV process and – critically – of how data are recorded during the process. It draws on expert analysis obtained from a US pipeline specialist who reviewed JIV investigation documents and data provided by oil companies and regulators to researchers in the course of investigations.

The report presents evidence not only of serious and systemic flaws in the oil spill investigation process, but also specific examples of instances where the cause of an oil spill appears to have been wrongly attributed to sabotage. The evidence includes a secretly filmed video of an oil spill investigation. In addition, the report exposes serious problems with how the volume of oil spilt is assessed and recorded; it is likely that the volume of oil recorded as spilt in many cases is incorrect.

The human rights impacts are serious – both the cause of a spill and the volume spilt affect the compensation a community receives. If the spill is recorded as caused by sabotage or theft, the affected community gets no compensation, regardless of the damage done to their farms and fisheries. This is based on a provision in Nigeria's oil legislation which Amnesty International and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development believe needs to be amended. Oil companies should be held responsible for a spill that is due to sabotage or theft if they have failed to take sufficient measures to prevent tampering with their infrastructure.

The majority of the report's findings relate to the Shell Petroleum Development Company, which is the major onshore operator in the Niger Delta. The report acknowledges improvements in Shell's JIV process since 2011, when the company began to publish JIV reports on its website. Other companies have yet to do this.

However, serious flaws remain within Shell's post-2011 oil spill investigation process. These include weaknesses in the underlying evidence used to attribute spills to sabotage and the fact that the JIV reports are filled out by Shell after the joint investigation process – not as part of the joint investigation process. There is, consequently, a lack of transparency and oversight in terms of what is recorded on the new JIV reports.

The report also reviews Shell's pre-2011 JIV process. Although Shell has made some improvements in its process since 2011, findings related to the pre-2011 process are important for two reasons: firstly, numerous pre-2011 oil spills are the subject of ongoing disputes between Shell and communities over the data recorded on JIV reports. Secondly, Shell uses pre-2011 data to make claims to investors and the media about the cause and volume of oil spilt in the Niger Delta in the last five years.

Despite its frequent references to sabotage and theft, Shell has failed to take effective measures to protect its infrastructure from tampering. Vulnerable infrastructure has been left exposed to vandalism and theft.8 In addition, evidence has recently emerged to suggest that Shell's own contractors may be involved in oil theft.