Four Nigerians have taken on an unlikely and outsized opponent, Shell Oil — and on Shell’s home turf.

The men live in villages in the Niger Delta, a sprawling region in the south of the country where the Niger River fans out to meet the Atlantic. The area is home to much of the oil-rich country’s petroleum infrastructure — refineries, etc. — serving as the commodity’s gateway to the rest of the world. The oil business in this region is often dangerous, and toxic and polluting.

The plaintiffs pose outside of the courthouse in The Hague.
RNWAfrica

The villagers, working with Friends of the Earth, say that leaks from a Shell pipeline ruined farmland, ponds, and the water supply. From the Associated Press:

“If you are drinking water you are drinking crude, if you are eating fish, you are eating crude, if you are breathing, you are breathing crude,” one of the farmers, Eric Dooh, told reporters outside court.

“What I expect today is justice,” he added. “I expect that judges are going to proceed in this matter, have sympathy and look into our environment — tell Shell to apply the international standards where they are operating in Nigeria.”

The aftermath of a Shell oil spill in Nigeria.
SU

Shell’s argument is two-fold: that the pipeline was the target of sabotage — not uncommon in Nigeria where oil theft is rampant — and that security concerns prevented the company from cleaning up after the leak. A Dutch court previously ruled in favor of Shell on the former point. The plaintiffs in the current action hope to have that overturned, arguing that the pipeline was corroded.

Shell’s tenure in Nigeria is long and rocky.

Shell’s local subsidiary remains the top foreign oil producer in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps about the size of Portugal. Its production forms the backbone of crude production in Nigeria, a top supplier to the gasoline-thirsty U.S.

Shell, which discovered and started the country’s oil well in the late 1950s, remains demonized by activists and local communities over oil spills and close ties to government security forces. Some Shell pipelines that crisscross the delta are decades old and can fail, causing massive pollution.

According to Radio Netherlands, a verdict is expected in January.