Shell continued flaring gas in Nigeria years after saying it would stop, documents and satellite imagery show

Left image from 2003. Right image from 2019.
This gas flare appears to be burning continuously – or at least intermittently – for over 15 years. A flame is clearly visible in the satellite imagery in the years between 2003 and 2019. It’s one of several gas flares in close proximity to Otu-Jeremi, a town with a secondary school, a hospital, and a church. Images: Google Earth.

Shell has spent decades claiming that they are taking steps to stop gas flaring at their oil fields in Nigeria. But satellite imagery going back to the early 2000s shows that they failed to put out the infernos. Instead, they allowed natural gas, which could have been used to bring power to the estimated 40% of homes with no electricity, to burn continuously for years, a practice that’s known to cause acid rain, kill wildlife, ruin crops, and cause light and noise pollution.

Gas flaring, the practice of openly burning gases created as a by-product of oil extraction, is illegal in Nigeria. It has been decreased in recent years, but the flares still dot the landscape in the Niger Delta despite years of promises from Shell to stop the harmful practice and numerous lawsuits waged against them by affected locals.

The Niger Delta in southern Nigeria is one of the most prolific oil-producing regions in Africa. The devastating toll that oil extraction has had on the environment continues to cause countless deaths, illnesses, and a slurry of high profile, international lawsuits. Militancy, sabotage, and theft have led to even more deaths over the years as the central government and foreign companies colluded to quell unrest.

I spoke with Nubari Saatah, an Ogoni local and acting president of the Niger Delta Congress (NDC), who says the fight against Shell has been an uphill battle for the people of the Niger Delta.

“Yes, [the gas flaring] has decreased, but said reduction is inconsequential when it can he stopped altogether,” said Saatah. Rather than putting a stop to the gas flares, Shell has sold off many gas fields to local companies and much of the flaring continues under the purview of less accountable management.

Nubari Saatah, Ogoni local and Acting President of the Niger Delta Congress. Photo: Twitter.

According to Saatah, Shell is “trying to leave the Niger Delta and hand over all the responsibilities and all the liabilities to other smaller companies. That includes the need for enormous clean-up efforts in the many river beds and swamps devastated by crude oil spills.

“That’s what they are trying to do. They are trying to escape responsibility. It’s criminal,” Saatah added. He likened it to a bank robber making a hasty escape with cash in tow.

He says it’s been next to impossible to get any compensation from Shell and many locals have turned to the lucrative business of pipeline sabotage and repair scams, what he describes as a viscous cycle of loss of traditional livelihood and further environmental devastation.

Never-ending infernos

Internal Shell Nigeria reports that were likely meant for shareholders, made available through a Freedom of Information request to the Dutch government, show that the company announced what they called the “Flares Down” program in 2010, though initiatives to end gas flaring were ostensibly being pursued already some time before that.

But satellite images show that flaring continued into 2020 at one site – ten years after the program was announced – despite a promise from Shell to stop gas flaring at that specific site.

In the images below, intermittent flaring can be seen from space at the Etelebou Oil Field, in the heart of the Niger Delta, over a span of at least 17 years, though flaring likely started long before 2003 – that’s just the year of the earliest available satellite image.

What’s more, publicly available Shell Nigeria incident reports reveal that the company still owned the Etelebou Oil Field in 2019. They hadn’t sold it off to local companies, as was the case with other oil installations. A Shell report from 2008 specifically promised to stop flaring at this location. Despite that promise, it continued.

A gas flare at the Etelebou Oil Field in Baylesa state in 2003, 2013, 2017, and 2020. The flaring is not visible in the satellite imagery in 2017 and 2018, when it appears to have been extinguished temporarily, but it appears again in 2020. Images: Google Earth.

The first image, an excerpt from an internal Shell incident report from 2019, is proof that Shell Nigeria remained the owner (at least partial owner) of the Etelebou Oil Field up until very recently. This and other similar reports detail oil spills caused by “operational failures.” (Highlights added). Source:

The second image is an excerpt from a 2008 internal Shell report, likely meant for shareholders, that discusses the company’s “environmental performance.” It says gas flaring at the Etelebou Oil Field would be put to an end. The satellite images show it continued. (Highlights added). Source: Internal Shell documents made available through a Freedom of Information request to the Dutch government.

Shell and Shell Nigeria ignored various detailed written requests and phone calls for comment on their seemingly failed “Flares Down” program, various lawsuits, and related allegations made by our sources.

A 2019 Shell ‘sustainability report’ states that the company is “working to reduce flaring,” but mentions delays in making infrastructure to capture the gas. Graphs in the reports show only a negligible decrease in recent years.

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