The first time Nigerian environmental lawyer Chima Williams took over the reins of the facility, he was 12 years old.

The principal of his college had shown up late, staggering and drunk, he said, and so he and his fellow students protested at their school in southern Nigeria. They were dancing and chanting slogans, calling on the principal to leave. Then the police arrived and took the skinny teenager to jail – where he heaved a row.

A policeman asked, “Who’s making noise over there,” Williams recalled with a laugh. “I was so small.” The police did not arrest him in the end, and the principal was transferred to another school.

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

Now 53, Williams rose to prominence when he faced a player much bigger than his main. Working for a group of Nigerian farmers, he sued Shell, one of the biggest oil companies in the world.

Chief’s son reports oil spill

It all started in 2004. Williams was sitting in his Nigerian law firm, 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 crisscross mangroves and streams, and communities live alongside fossil fuel infrastructure – some dating back to the 1960s.

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

Goi residents said Shell’s aging pipelines were to blame for the spill. “Their pipes were too old,” says Dooh. But Williams feared that even if he could prove Shell Nigeria was liable, he feared a legal judgment in a Nigerian court would be enough to get Shell Nigeria and other energy companies to implement new safety and environmental measures. . “It became a question of applicability,” he says.

Shell told NPR it could not comment on the Goi case, but in a statement released 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 biggest presence in Nigeria – for a reason: “Our belief is that if we can get Shell to do it right, smaller companies will also do well.

That’s when William and his colleagues had an idea. At a meeting in South Africa, they agreed to try “to take the battle to [oil companies] Instead of taking Shell to Nigerian courts, they would take legal action in The Hague, Netherlands, where the energy company was then based. Williams hoped a victory in a Dutch court would have ripple effects across the Nigerian energy industry.

Williams and his legal team traveled the Niger Delta, by car and boat through the creeks, to build their case. They traveled to Goi and other communities affected by Shell Nigeria pipeline spills to learn how oil pollution was affecting people’s health and livelihoods.

And judgment…

In 2008, the Nigerian plaintiffs of Williams and Friends of the Earth Netherlands formally commenced their legal action in the Netherlands. More than a decade later, after an initial loss and 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 pipeline spills in Goi and Oruma. The court further ruled that 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 on oil spill litigation. “The fact that this legal campaign has spanned more than 13 years and continued through major obstacles and setbacks is a testament to Chima’s commitment to the Niger Delta and the people who live there,” said Ilan Kayatsky, Director of Prize Communications.

Williams says he has already seen a positive impact from The Hague ruling in Nigeria. He says the victory encourages more communities to sue oil companies – because the problem of oil spills has not gone away.

Oil spills continue

A joint investigation by the Nigerian government and the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell revealed that there had been an oil spill in early August in the community of Bodo in the Niger Delta, about 8 km 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 all over our land,” Nyiedeh says, “It has a very shocking smell. It shocks you.”

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

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

Williams says the continued oil spills worry her, especially because of what is currently happening in the Nigerian oil sector. Many major international energy companies operating in the country are selling or wish to sell many of their onshore oil assets in Nigeria. Much of those sales would transfer ownership of pipelines and wells to smaller Nigerian companies, which Williams is concerned. “[These] entities do not have the capacity to maintain the facilities and structures that these divesting multinational corporations bequeath to them.”

Worried about a pivot to the gas

Williams is also concerned about Nigeria’s efforts for new gas infrastructure, including a multibillion-dollar expansion of Nigeria’s leading liquefied gas export company, NLNG, and onshore gas pipeline projects to Morocco. Nigeria is seeking to increase its gas exports to Europe, which has cut Russian gas supplies because of the war in Ukraine. , “But beyond that, we also want to use our own gas for our own industrial development.”

Nigerian gas supporters say gas pipelines are not as easy to vandalize as oil pipelines, but there are still break-ins. “We witnessed about 14 incidents [last year]“, said Leye Falade, Managing Director of NLNG, during a webinar for a Nigerian gas industry group, “14 times we have to close the pipeline and fix it because people have entered this pipeline. “That’s compared to what he says is the norm of 1 or 2 burglaries a year.

And, says Williams, there is still gas flaring in Nigeria. It is the practice of burning excess gas, which is hazardous to the health and safety of local communities, and releases methane, a potent gas that warms the planet. “It is this gas flaring that makes Nigeria the biggest source of [methane] shows in Africa,” says Williams.

In recent months, Nigeria has faced its worst flooding in a decade, with 600 dead and more than a million displaced. In some parts of the country, houses are still submerged. The Nigerian government blames the floods in part on climate change.

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

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