Goal Zero: How Shell’s spill response and prevention strategy is yielding fruit


Goal Zero: How Shell’s spill response and prevention strategy is yielding fruit

Ayo Olesin

One of the major downsides of oil exploration and production globally is the risk and incidence of oil spills. For sure oils pills can have devastating and long lasting effects on the environment including degradation of farmlands, pollution of water sources and marine ecosystems, fire outbreaks and a rather long list of other undesirable outcomes.


This is why oil firms and regulators emplace diverse measures including high tech safety and security systems to prevent, detect, contain and clean up spills whenever they occur. Legal and operational guidelines are also codified by regulators and the companies themselves to tackle this problem.

Shell, being the largest operator in Nigeria has had its fair share of operational spills but has had to cope with an even more insidious problem – pipeline vandalism or deliberate breaches of oil pipeline by thieves who steal crude to sell to a criminal partners or to feed illegal refineries that now litter the Niger Delta.

Mindful of the need to implement drastic measures to tackle this menace, which has resulted in monetary losses apart for the aforementioned environmental hazards, Shell Nigeria adopted a zero spill tolerance policy known as GAOL ZERO, which has already started making marked impact even though the challenges linger.

For instance, according to the company’s annual review for 2019 as contained in its Nigeria Briefing Notes, the SPDC JV reduced operational spills to their lowest levels, significantly reduced breaches from wellheads and cleaned up more spill sites than ever before.

The energy company reported seven operational spills in 2019, a 46.6 percent decrease over the previous year (when it recorded 15 such spills). The data available showed that in 2019, theft and sabotage resulted in 156 spills. In 2018, the figure was 109.

The SPDC JV has a policy that when a leak is identified, the team responds to contain any spilled oil and clean up. In 2019, SPDC JV remediated 130 sites.

The SPDC JV is working to eliminate spills from its operational activities, remediate past spills and prevent spills caused by crude oil theft, sabotage of pipelines or illegal oil refining. While SPDC operates to the same technical standards as other Shell companies globally, illegal activities continue to inhibit a normal operating environment.

Past spills from operational and illegal activities have been well documented, resulting in a clean-up programme and, where appropriate, compensation.

Yet, Shell acknowledges that there is still much work to do to get the company to its target of Goal Zero in all spills (operational and third-party vandalism). But through a solid strategy, active partnerships, closer community engagements, bold security and new surveillance equipment, the company says it is steadily making good progress.

Specifically, this progress has been made the following areas: Improving performance; Preventing illegal activity; Response and investigation; Improving remediation and Clean-up in Ogoniland.

Making things work better

Shell says that has a global ambition to achieve “no harm and no leaks” across all its operations. This is known as Goal Zero. To reduce the number of operational spills in Nigeria, the SPDC JV is focused on implementing its ongoing work programme to appraise, maintain and replace key sections of pipelines and flow lines. In 2019, SPDC completed another 30 kilometres of new pipelines, bringing the total laid over the last eight years to around 1,330 kilometres.

These efforts have significantly reduced operational spills over 100 kilograms to seven incidents and 28 tonnes of crude in 2019, compared to 15 incidents and 413 tonnes in 2018. This represents a year-on-year reduction of more than 90 percent by volume, returning the joint venture to its trend of reducing operational spills.

“Community engagement and the ongoing commitment from government agencies has also helped shorten response times to incidents”, it says. Indeed, SPDC’s average time to complete the clean-up of free and/or residual spilled oil has halved from 13 days in 2016 to seven days in 2019. Closer engagement with communities has helped SPDC to access spill locations more quickly, meaning on average that joint investigations now commence within three days in 2019 compared to six days in 2016.

Oil spill site assessment

However, the challenge of preventing spills relating to sabotage and theft by third parties remains. These illegal activities accounted for 95% of the SPDC JV spill incidents in 2019, a similar proportion to previous years.

Giving further details, Shell says that in 2019, there were 156 theft and sabotage-related spills over 100 kilograms, up from 109 in 2018. “This is due to factors such as increased availability of production facilities after a major export line repair in 2017, crude theft activities in an election year when government security agents can be reassigned, and the price of crude oil and refined products that is seen as an opportunity for illegal refining. Despite preventive efforts, spilled volumes from illegal activities increased to around 2,000 tonnes of crude in 2019, compared with around 1,600 tonnes in 2018.”

Response and Investigation

According to the document, when a leak is identified, production is suspended, and efforts made to contain any spilled oil. “We regularly test our emergency spill response procedures and capability to ensure staff and contractors can respond rapidly to an incident.

“In line with government regulations, a Joint Investigation Visit (JIV) team visits the spill site to establish the cause and volume of oil spilled. The team comprises representatives from SPDC, regulators, government security agencies, state governments and communities.”

Improving Remediation

In addition to responding to recent spill incidents, the SPDC JV points out that it continues to identify and remediate legacy spill locations. For example, in 2019, 130 sites were remediated and 123 certified by Nigerian government regulators, compared to 116 certified and 45 remediated in 2018.

Regardless of the cause, SPDC cleans up and remediates areas impacted by spills that come from its operations. In the case of operational spills, SPDC also pays compensation to communities impacted by the spill. Once the clean-up and remediation are completed, the work is inspected and, if satisfactory, approved and certified by Nigerian government regulators.

The company also works with a range of stakeholders in the Niger Delta to build greater trust in spill response and clean-up processes. Local communities take part in the remediation work for operational spills. In certain instances, some non-governmental organisations have also participated in joint investigation visits along with government regulators, SPDC and members of impacted communities to establish the cause and volume of oil spilled.

SPDC has also worked with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2012 to enhance remediation techniques and protect biodiversity at sites affected by oil spills in SPDC’s areas of operation in the Niger Delta. This work includes using bioremediation, a process that uses micro-organisms to naturally break down and, ultimately, remove oil contamination.

In 2019, SPDC and IUCN joined forces on the Niger Delta Biodiversity Technical Advisory Group, which also includes representatives from the Nigerian Conservation Foundation and Wetlands International. The groups will continue to work together to monitor biodiversity recovery of remediated sites. Four sites have been assessed and selected as pilot sites for monitoring. These sites represent three ecosystems in the Niger Delta: land, seasonal swamp and swamp.

The Niger Delta Panel, an independent scientific advisor, has also provided input on oil spill response and remediation of soil and groundwater contamination. Based on this, SPDC strengthened its approach in this area.

SPDC notes that its remediation practices are compliant with the Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN). “The techniques adopted by SPDC are believed to be the most effective for the soil and climate conditions in the equatorial heat of the Niger Delta. Bioremediation using land farming techniques is recognised internationally and often advocated by regulators such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment Agency in the UK. It aims to restore the land to conditions acceptable to human health and the environment. It stimulates the natural microbial processes that break down and use the carbon-rich oil contamination as a source of food and energy, ultimately leading to its removal.”

Significantly, bioremediation has wider positive impacts, for example in developing local expertise and generating employment. SPDC, however, says it does use other technologies where appropriate.

Tackling pipeline vandals

Third-party incidents and spills are a major problems which SDPC says it is committed to minimising its impact by working with government agencies, non-governmental organisations and communities to proactively minimise such spills from illegal activity.

This work includes using simplified zonal pipeline maps to enhance targeted response to third-party interference and prevent incidents from occurring. Since 2017, SPDC has also been able to remove more than 523 illegal theft points. Illegal theft points are identified by daily inspections from the air and on the ground.

The company has also implemented anti-theft protection mechanisms, such as anti-tamper locks and steel cages for wellheads. Around 301 cages have been installed so far and around 80 more are planned for 2020 that will all come with CCTV technology. In 2019, three breaches of the cages were recorded out of 300 attempts. As a result, wellhead-related losses significantly dropped from about 30 kb/d in 2016 to less than 1 kb/d in 2019 across all SPDC operations.

Pipeline repairs

SPDC says it has also implemented several initiatives and partnerships to raise awareness of the negative impact of crude oil theft and illegal oil refining. Examples include community-based pipeline surveillance, radio jingles and the promotion of alternative livelihoods through Shell’s youth entrepreneurship programme, Shell LiveWIRE.

Cleaning up Ogoniland

SPDC is working with the relevant stakeholders to implement the 2011 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland, where oil spills triggered a falling out between the communities and the oil firm.

However, SPDC says it has, over the last eight years, taken action on all, and completed most of the UNEP recommendations addressed specifically to it as operator of the joint venture.

The UNEP report had recommended the creation of an Ogoni Trust Fund with $1 billion capital to be co-funded by the Nigerian government, the SPDC JV and other operators in the area.

The SPDC JV remains fully committed to contributing its share of $900 million over five years to the fund and made $10 million available in 2017 to help set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution and Remediation Project (HYPREP), an agency established by the federal government to lead the clean-up effort.

Ogoniland clean up activity by Shell

In 2018, the SPDC JV deposited a further $170 million into the escrow account to fund HYPREP’s activities, to complete its first-year contribution of $180 million and also contributed the next tranche of $180 million in 2019, making a total contribution of $360 million, which represents the full amount due for the two years.

SPDC continues to work with the Bodo community and others to clean up areas affected by two operational spills in 2008. A memorandum of understanding granting SPDC access to begin the clean-up was signed in 2015 and two contractors were selected to conduct the clean-up, overseen by an independent project director.

In specific terms, the clean-up consists of three phases: 1) removal of free phase surface oil, 2) remediation of soil, 3) planting of mangroves and monitoring.

The removal of surface oil started in September 2017 and was completed in August 2018 while field remediation activities started in November 2019 following a contract procurement process to select remediation contractors.

Shell says at least 800 community workers have been medically checked, assessed for their swimming ability to ensure they can safely respond to incidents in rivers and creeks, and trained to International Maritime Organisation oil spill response Levels one and two. Remediation is expected to take around 18 months. The clean-up will only be successful if the repeated re-contamination of cleaned-up sites from illegal third-party activity stops.

What Shell has done about the UNEP recommendations

Since 2011, SPDC says it has taken action on all the recommendations addressed specifically to it as operator.

These are: a re-assessment of 15 SPDC JV sites mentioned in the UNEP report and remediated further where required with the sites certified by government regulator and completion of an inventory and physical verification of assets for decommissioning and working with joint venture partners and the FGN to develop a decommissioning plan for these assets.

The company also completed a comprehensive review of its oil spill response and remediation techniques and made a number of improvements in line with industry best practices.

SPDC also collaborated with the Rivers State Government to deliver water to impacted communities and built water facilities, which are expected to be upgraded as part of HYPREP’s planned activities and trained contractors on clean-up and remediation techniques and assigned specialist supervisors to a number of project sites to ensure effective oversight and compliance.

Part of the actions include continuous and regular aerial monitoring of the JV’s facilities in Ogoniland, including the creeks and pipelines, to identify new incidents or activities (such as theft and sabotage) which may result in environmental damage and providing improved public access to information such as Joint Investigation Visit reports and spill incident data via a spills information web site (https://www.shell.com.ng/sustainability/environment/oil-spills.html).


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