Failings of Corporate Accountability in Nigerian Oil Production


In 2011, after a three year investigation, the United Nations Environmental Program produced a report detailing the consequences of the contamination by Shell oil company in an area of Nigeria called Ogoniland.  Though oil operations ceased in 1993 (Shell was driven out of the area because of the pollution and failure to assist the region), little has been done to restore the community.  Oil spills continue to happen because of the existing infrastructure, and heavy contamination still exists as results of spills that happened up to 40 years ago.

Much of this continued environmental degradation is due to the lack of accountability of Shell Oil Company.  However, this lack of accountability was and is only possible because of the insufficient government oversight that exists in Nigeria.  When oil spills happen, the company itself is in charge of doing the assessment.  They then get to determine the cause of the spill – and this decision is important, because it determines who is responsible for clean up when, and who may receive compensation for the damage.  Shell has repeatedly blamed vandalism, robbery, and sabotage for the spills, thus shifting the blame away from their harmful practices.  In fact, this is a huge point of contention in the community.  Though sabotage certainly does happen, Shell says that over 90% of all the spilled oil is due to that vandalism.  This narrative gives them a reason to not reassess their infrastructure, practices, and responses.  However, these reports are often proven false and during and following their report, the public’s access to information is extremely limited.  The fact that the companies are given this direct control is incredibly concerning form an accountability standpoint.

There are countless examples of Shell Oil Company not properly taking responsibility for, or cleaning up, spills that happened in Ogoniland while they were operating there.  However, even more concerning, is the fact that though they have ceased operations for over 10 years, and multiple international agencies (UNEP, Amnesty International, etc.) have called on them to take responsibility for the harm to the region, still very little has happened.

The UNEP report (sometimes even critiqued for being too conservative) has stated that $1 billion are needed for a clean-up fund, and the environment restoration will take 25-30 years.  Though three years has passed since this report, incredibly little has happened.  And though the environmental consequences are large (air pollution contributing to breathing problems, water contamination in both natural sources such as streams and storage wells, pollution of soil and forestation), there are also alarming effects on the lives of the Ogoni people in Nigeria.  For example, many of the Ogoni rely on hunting and fishing as their livelihood.  As oil spills contaminate the water sources of the region, it is impossible for many Ogoni to fish, and even further, to safely eat the fish they find.  As the soil is further contaminated, agricultural productivity, fertility, and safety all decline, causing problems for food security.

It is clear that there is a lot of work to do.  And even clearer that Shell Oil must start soon on these projects.  Unfortunately, the company’s response to the UNEP report has been extremely subpar – a webpage can be found on Shell’s website with about four pages of information focused at shifting the blame away from Shell.  With the world becoming increasingly interconnected and businesses becoming increasingly global, corporate accountability still needs to be a value, even when the governments of a host country are more lenient than those we are used to.  When a community suffers due to the direct effects of oil production, the oil company must take responsibility.

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