Corroded, ill-maintained pipelines—not sabotage—are responsible for several major spills by Shell Oil Co. in Africa, two international groups charge in a new report.
|A wooden stick plugs a leak in a Shell Oil pipeline in the Niger Delta on June 30, 2012. Local authorities said the leak was due to pipeline corrosion; Shell blames sabotage. Accufacts, a U.S. company that investigates oil infrastructure, also blamed corrosion and noted the layered metal around the break.|
Experts hired by Amnesty and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) say their evidence shows that lack of maintenance has led to severe corrosion that has caused several major spills dating back a decade in the Niger Delta.
Two major spills occurred in 2008 and have not been cleaned up, the groups allege. The most recent spill occurred on June 21; the leak was stopped nine days later.
The groups accuse Shell of lack of transparency in its investigation and inspections. Shell has removed the pipeline segment that ruptured in June to its own facility for review.
‘Very Familiar Pattern’
The evidence “strongly indicates that the leak is due to corrosion of the pipeline,” says the report, based in part on a review by the U.S. company Accufacts.
After reviewing photographs of the most recent spill, in which the pipeline hole was plugged with a wooden stick, the company reported to Amnesty: “This is apparently due to external corrosion.
|Local authorities and NGOs say the 50-year-old pipeline is overdue for maintenance and replacement.|
“Notice the layered loss of metal on the outside of the pipe around the ‘stick’ from pipe wall loss (thinning) due to external corrosion. It is a very familiar pattern that we have seen many times on other pipelines.”
“The investigation process into oil spills in the Niger Delta is a fiasco,” Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International, said in a statement issued with the report.
“There is more investment in public relations messaging than in facing up to the fact that much of the oil infrastructure is old, poorly maintained and prone to leaks—some of them devastating in terms of their human rights impact.
“No matter what evidence is presented to Shell about oil spills, they constantly hide behind the ‘sabotage’ excuse and dodge their responsibility for massive pollution that is due to their failure to properly maintain their infrastructure and make it safe, and to properly clean up oil spills.”
Shell and the two nonprofit groups have tangled before. In April, the groups accused the oil giant of misrepresenting the magnitude of previous spills in the region; Shell accused the groups of exaggeration.
The groups said the spills “resulted in tens of thousands of barrels of oil polluting the land and creek surrounding Bodo” Creek; Shell says it “admitted liability for two spills of about 4,000 barrels in Bodo caused by operational failures, as soon as their cause had been verified. …”
Shell has made a variety of claims about the spills. It said the current spill “looks like sabotage,” but then told Amnesty International that it was not accusing anyone of sabotage. The company initially laid an earlier spill to “equipment failure,” but later claimed sabotage.
In a release in May, the company said, “Much more oil has been spilt as a result of illegal activity—sabotage, illegal refining and theft, which blights the Delta generally.”
The groups are seeking full disclosure about all of the spills; a comprehensive clean-up in the region; and a public report on the age and integrity status of Shell’s oil infrastructure in the region.
Local authorities and non-governmental organizations say Shell’s pipes in the region have not been replaced since 1958.
The groups said the investigation process is “totally under the control of Shell” and quoted a 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Programme, which said: “Government agencies are at the mercy of oil companies when it comes to conducting site inspections.”
Gaughran said Shell had indicated that it could not investigate the spills “because local youths threw stones” at the investigators. She added, “Witnesses on site say that they did not see any such incident and that the security services were present during investigation.”
Shell said in a statement that it disagreed with the groups’ “assessment of the spill investigation process. We have recently had the investigation process, which is common to all operators in the Niger Delta, independently verified by Bureau Veritas – a global leader in conformity assessment and certification services. All oil spill incidents are investigated jointly by communities, regulators, operators and security agencies.”