A new chief executive takes the helm at Shell today. Peter Voser will preside over a company which generated about $458bn revenue in 2008 and has operations in more than 100 countries, and at a time when the oil industry has never been under more scrutiny. A Shell man since 1982 and said to be a "safe pair of hands", Voser will be remunerated to the tune of more than £3m. At Amnesty we hope a concerted effort to turn around Shell's appalling reputation in the Niger Delta will be at the top of the agenda of the first board meeting he leads.
Shell is by far the biggest oil firm operating in a region where in March 2008 it was estimated that at least 2,000 sites required treatment because of oil pollution – and some of these oil spills occurred years ago. Independent oil and environmental experts estimate that between 9m and 13m barrels of oil have been spilt in the Delta area during the last 50 years – that's the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez disaster every year.
A report by Amnesty today (pdf) finds that the cumulative effect of 50 years of oil exploration, extraction and spills is that many people in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water; they have to eat contaminated fish – if they are lucky enough to still be able to find fish – and farm on spoiled land. After oil spills the air reeks of pollutants. Many have been driven into poverty, and because they can't make Shell accountable for its actions there is enormous distrust between the group and local people.
Those who have protested against the environmental damage that has ruined their lives have been victims of repression. Shell recently settled out of court with relatives of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other people who were executed in 1995, as well as victims of violence in Ogoniland, thereby avoiding a courtroom test of whether the company was complicit in these killings. Today Shell continues its operations in a place wracked by armed groups and criminal gangs, sabotage of oil facilities, theft of oil, and long-running disputes over how spills are to be cleaned up. Usually Shell says sabotage has caused a spill and therefore it is not liable; local people say equipment failure is to blame; and the Nigerian government refuses to effectively arbitrate.
The failure of the Nigerian government is a critical part of this story. Oil is estimated to have earned Nigeria more than $600bn since the 1960s, and the oil and gas sector represents about 80% of government revenues. Its reluctance to take on oil companies is not difficult to understand. All many local people will ever see of the state are armed soldiers visiting the region to protect oil company assets. Shell and the other oil operators are able to take advantage of this situation to carry on regardless knowing they will not be challenged.
The complexity of the situation has too often been used as an excuse for inaction by both the government and the oil firms. It leads to vague commitments like those of Shell's Malcolm Brinded on this site recently about it being "time to move on" and "move along the reconciliation process".
What is urgently needed is some concrete and specific action from Shell to change the way it works in the Niger Delta. Peter Voser could commit to cleaning up oil spills promptly, and adequately compensating those affected – and, critically, declare Shell's support for effective independent regulation and promise not to lobby against this.
If fairness and the rule of law can be brought to truly control the oil industry in Niger Delta then maybe there really could be a new start for both local people and Shell.
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK.