He began to protest the principal of his high school. He now he faces Big Oil

The first time Nigerian environmental lawyer Chima Williams confronted the establishment she was 12 years old.

The principal of his secondary school had arrived late, staggering and drunk, he says, so he and his classmates held a protest at his school in southern Nigeria. They were dancing and chanting slogans, calling for the director to leave. Then the police arrived and took the scrawny teen to jail, where he went on a rampage.

A police officer asked, “Who’s making the noise there?” Williams recalls with a smile. “He was so small.” The police did not arrest him and the principal was transferred to another school.

The lesson he learned, he says, is that “there is power in what you believe and how you do it without compromise.”

Now 53, Williams has made a name for himself by taking on a player much bigger than his manager. Working on behalf of a group of Nigerian farmers, he sued Shell, one of the world’s largest oil companies.

A boss’s son denounces an oil spill

It started in 2004. Williams was sitting in his Nigerian law office, a two-story building with a mango tree out front, when an old friend brought him a potential new client. Eric Dooh was the son of a chief of a small community called Goi. Williams had never heard of it.

Goi is in the Niger Delta, where oil pipelines weave through mangroves and streams, and communities live alongside fossil fuel infrastructure, some of which dates back to the 1960s.

Dooh told Williams about an oil spill in his community from a pipeline belonging to a Nigerian subsidiary of Shell. In October 2004, the pipeline ruptured, sending oil into Goi’s waterways, where it eventually caught fire, burning the village and its mangroves. Dooh’s family’s bakery, fish shop, and farm were destroyed. “I asked Chima, ‘Can you handle this case for me?’ And Chima said that he was going to look into the matter,” says Dooh.

The Goi people said that old Shell oil pipelines caused the spill. “His pipes were aged,” says Dooh. But Williams was concerned that even if he could prove that Shell Nigeria was responsible, he feared that a legal trial in a Nigerian court would not be enough for Shell Nigeria and other energy companies to implement new environmental and safety measures. “It became a question of applicability,” he says.

Shell told NPR it could not comment on the Goi case, but in a statement earlier this year, Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary said the Goi oil spill was “the result of sabotage.”

A new strategy to face Shell

Williams wanted to target Shell, the international energy company with the largest presence in Nigeria, for a reason: “We believe that if we can get Shell to do things right, the smaller companies will do just as well.”

It was then that William and his colleagues had an idea. At a meeting in South Africa they agreed to try “to take the battle to [oil companies] in their own home countries,” he says. Rather than sue Shell in Nigerian courts, they would file suit in The Hague, the Netherlands, where the energy company was headquartered at the time. Williams hoped a victory in Dutch courts had a ripple effect around the world Nigerian energy industry.

Williams and his legal team traveled through the Niger Delta, by car and by boat through the streams, to build their case. They went to Goi and other communities affected by Shell Nigeria pipeline spills to learn how oil contamination affected the health of the locals and their livelihoods.

And the verdict…

In 2008, the Nigerian plaintiffs of Williams and Friends of the Earth Netherlands officially started their lawsuit in the Netherlands. More than a decade later, after an initial loss and an appeal, they finally got their verdict. On January 29, 2021, the High Court in The Hague ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary should pay compensation for the pipeline spills in Goi and Oruma. The court further ruled that both Shell and its subsidiary must install a leak detection system to prevent further spills.

And earlier this year, Williams received more good news. He was named one of seven winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in oil spill litigation. “That this legal campaign lasted for more than 13 years and continued through great obstacles and setbacks is a testament to Chima’s commitment to the Niger Delta and the people who live there,” says Ilan Kayatsky, communication director for the award.

Williams says he has already seen a positive impact from the Hague ruling in Nigeria. He says the victory is encouraging more communities to sue the oil companies, because the problem of oil spills hasn’t gone away.

Oil spills continue

A joint investigation by the Nigerian government and Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary found that there was an oil spill in early August in the Niger Delta community of Bodo, about 5 miles from Goi.

On September 1, fisherman Behbari Nyiedah gave NPR a live tour via Whatsapp video.

Amid cassava plants half covered in mud, Nyiedeh showed NPR what looked like an overflowing water fountain, but with oil. “You can see crude oil everywhere on our land,” says Nyiedeh, “it has a very shocking smell. It hits you.”

What happened? According to the investigative report, the spill was due “to equipment failure.” There was a hole in the Shell Nigeria pipeline and the cause was “operational”.

Nyiedeh says the oil NPR saw on Whatsapp was in the same area cited in the investigative report; as of November, she says it hasn’t been cleaned yet. Shell tells NPR the planned cleanup date is the end of December. In an emailed statement, Shell argues that “the vast majority of oil spills in the Niger Delta are caused by theft of crude oil or pipeline sabotage” and that “regardless of who or what caused the spills from our facilities or pipelines, we clean up and remediate the affected areas”.

Williams says that the continuing oil spills worry him, especially with what is currently happening in the Nigerian oil sector. Many of the major international energy companies operating in the country are selling or want to sell many of their onshore oil assets in Nigeria. Many of these sales would transfer ownership of pipelines and wells to smaller Nigerian companies, which worries Williams. “[These] entities do not have the capacity to maintain the facilities and structures that these multinational divestments are leaving them”.

Concerns about a gas pivot

Williams is also concerned about Nigeria’s push for new gas infrastructure, including a multibillion-dollar expansion of Nigeria’s main liquefied gas export company, NLNG, and plans for an onshore pipeline to Morocco. Nigeria is looking to increase its gas exports to Europe, which has cut off Russian gas supplies because of the war in Ukraine. “It’s natural…to meet Europe’s need for gas,” says Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s ambassador to Germany. , “But beyond that, we also want to use our own gas for our own industrial development.”

Nigerian gas advocates say gas pipelines aren’t as easy to vandalize as oil pipelines, but there are still break-ins. “We witnessed about 14 incidents [last year]Leye Falade, NLNG’s general manager, said in a webinar for a Nigerian gas industry group, “14 times that we have to shut down the pipeline and fix it because people got into that pipeline.” That compares to what he says is the norm of 1 or 2 raids a year.

And, Williams says, there is still gas flaring in Nigeria. That is the practice of flaring excess gas, which is dangerous to the health and safety of local communities, and releases methane, a powerful planet-warming gas. “It’s that gas flaring that makes Nigeria the biggest source of [methane] emissions in Africa,” says Williams.

In recent months, Nigeria has faced its worst flooding in a decade, killing 600 people and displacing more than a million people. In some parts of the country, houses are still submerged. The Nigerian government attributes the flooding in part to climate change.

World leaders and country representatives are now meeting at the United Nations COP27 international climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Williams is currently attending the so-called “African COP”.

He says he hopes the conference will give Africans a real agency to shape the discussion on the intersection of fossil fuels and climate change. If not? “Then it shouldn’t be called ‘African COP’, it should be called ‘Western COP held in Africa’! It’s as simple as ABC.” [Copyright 2022 NPR]

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