Truth elusive in Nigeria oil spill probes

In southern Nigeria, citizens allege oil companies are influencing investigations of spills to avoid responsibility.

Oil spills have had a disastrous impact on people in Goi, in Nigeria’s Gokana area.

Rivers State, where Gokana is located, is one of the richest oil producing areas in the country. In 2008, however, an oil spill caused major pollution, devastating villagers’ land, and shattering the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. The oil giant Shell admitted responsibility for the disaster, community members tell us.

But, they say, Shell underplayed the scale of the spill.

People here have welcomed a new report by Amnesty International that accuses oil companies of giving false and misleading information to the public about the causes and scale of oil spills.

Given the environment in which they operate, oil companies do theoretically have the ability to falsify and manipulate information about the causes and extent of spills, as Amnesty alleges. The oil companies, first and foremost have a monopoly on the information about their operations and infrastructure. They also have the financial resources, manpower, and technical expertise to conduct investigations. These investigations will often take place in highly secure and sometimes remote zones, often with the private security and state security personnel working on the side of the oil companies.

In contrast, many of the victims of oil spills are uneducated and poor. With no know-how or resources to understand, analyse or independently verify most of the findings of the investigations.

Amnesty strongly criticises the Joint Investigation Visits (JIVs) that are sometimes organised by oil companies after a spill occurs.

They’re designed to bring representatives from the oil companies and community members together, often at spill sites, to investigate what happened.

Community members that Al Jazeera spoke to in Goi strongly criticised the process, however, accusing oil companies of manipulating locals into signing JIV reports that blame spills on vandalism of oil infrastructure . Eric Doh, one community leader, accuses Shell of falsifying his signature on a JIV report.

The oil companies named in the Amnesty report, including Shell and Agip (owned by the Italian oil giant ENI) robustly deny all the allegations made by Amnesty, as well as accusations like those made by of Doh. They say many oil spills are caused by pipeline vandalism. The Nigerian government admits oil theft by locals is a huge problem. One independent organisation says at least 100,000 barrels of oil a day are stolen in this way, with many attemps causing oil spills.

Many of the people of Goi are resigned to the belief that it’s almost impossible to effectively argue against what oil companies say about the causes and scale oil spills.
They feel, however, that the Amnesty report has raised important questions about the oil spill investigation and reporting practices.

They say they hope it will spur the Nigerian government to take the lead in investigating oil spills. But some doubt that will happen, because the Nigerian government is heavily invested in the oil sector. If the government puts pressure on those oil companies it is in partnerships with, they may leave Nigeria and decide to do business elsewhere.

When questioned, the Nigerian authorities, however, say they’re putting mechanisms in place to ensure that spills are independently and truthfully probed.