A key Shell-operated oil pipeline system in Nigeria continues to be hit by sabotage and crude theft, despite being shut down to prevent such events, with the latest incident in Rivers State causing a dozen deaths following an explosion.

More so than any other oil company, Shell is the bete noire of environmental campaigners both within and beyond Nigeria for its association with oil spills in the Niger Delta.

This demonisation has certainly been justified in many instances, as evidenced by local communities affected by legacy oil spills winning key court cases against the supermajor in Europe over the years.

However, since 2016, some 75% of spills have been caused by theft and sabotage, largely by militants and organised crime groups, in many cases facilitated by corrupt officials, according to Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Response & Detection Agency (NOSDRA).

In its just-published annual report, Shell said about 88% of oil spills greater than 100 kilograms from facilities operated by its subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) were caused by “the illegal activities of third parties”.

It noted that of 75 incidents exceeding 100 kilograms that were attributed to sabotage in 2022, the volume of oil spilled totalled 600 tonnes, compared with 3300 tonnes and 106 incidents in 2021.

“The decreased number of incidents in 2022 correlates with a shutdown of production for about six months because of an unprecedented increase of crude oil theft from the Trans Niger Pipeline [TNP],” Shell said.

TNP — which is operated by SPDC on behalf of a joint venture where it holds a 30% stake — was the site of a devastating blast on 3 March that killed 12 people.

An investigation is being undertaken by NOSDRA and the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission into the incident that took place during an illegal crude theft operation.

Commenting on the deadly explosion, an SPDC spokesperson said: “On 3 March 2023, a fire broke out at a crude oil theft point on the TNP resulting, sadly, in 12 fatalities, according to the police.

“A government-led investigation identified the activities of crude thieves at the site of the illegal connection as the cause of the fire.”

The spokesperson added that the 36-inch Rumekpe-Nkpoku trunk line — which forms part of the TNP and is where the fire happened — was already shut down at the time of the incident.

According to Shell, since 2011, about 90% of oil spills from SPDC-operated facilities in the Niger Delta have been caused by sabotage and theft.

The spokesperson said SPDC “has sustained an annual campaign against crude theft, pipeline vandalism, right of way encroachment and illegal crude oil refining”.

In terms of operational oil spills, Shell’s 2022 annual report said the SPDC joint venture reported 10 incidents of more than 100 kilograms — about the same as 2021 — with the total volume spilled being 10 tonnes compared with 30 tonnes in the prior year.

In 2022, about 27 kilometres of pipelines and flow lines were replaced.

In an effort to tackle sabotage and oil theft, Shell said there are daily overflights of the most vulnerable segments of its pipeline network, more than 300 steel cages — some with CCTV — have been built to protect wellheads, and drones have been introduced to inspect and monitor facilities.