Lagos - An oil spill in Nigeria for which Royal Dutch Shell is being sued for tens of millions of dollars in a London court was at least 60 times worse than it announced, a report by Amnesty International said on Monday, citing research it commissioned.
A Shell spokeswoman said it was not appropriate to comment on the estimate while the spill was still the subject of litigation, adding that efforts to clean up had been hampered by insecurity in the Bodo area of the Niger Delta and by oil theft that had caused even more oil to be spilt since.
A group of 11,000 Nigerians launched a suit against Royal Dutch Shell at the London High Court last month for two oil spills in 2008/9 that they say destroyed their livelihoods.
SPDC, a Shell-run joint venture between the state oil firm, which holds 55 percent, Shell, with 30 percent, EPNL, with 10 percent and Agip, with 5 percent, admits responsibility for two spills that devastated the Bodo fishing communities in the Niger Delta, a labyrinth of creeks and swaps.
The Amnesty accusation is based on footage of one of the oil leaks sent to Washington State-based research company Accufacts, which examined the flow rate from the film and found it to be between one and three barrels a minute.
Amnesty extrapolated that the total oil spilled "over the 72 day period is between 103,000 barrels and 311,000 barrels."
The high end of Amnesty's estimate is still only half the 600,000 barrels that lawyer Martyn Day, who represents the affected Bodo communities, says may have been spilt. But it is much greater than the 1,640 barrels Shell says flowed out.
"The difference is staggering: even using the lower end of the Accufacts estimate, the volume of oil spilt at Bodo was more than 60 times the volume Shell has repeatedly claimed leaked," Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Success in Day's case would create a precedent that other communities affected by oil spills around the world might follow. It is being nervously watched by the oil industry.
Shell spokeswoman Sarah Bradley told Reuters around 4,000 barrels of oil were spilt in total in the two spills -- about 1,640 barrels in the one Amnesty investigated that was stopped in Nov. 2008, and another 2,500 barrels from a corroded pipe that was fixed in Feb. 2009.
Accufacts officials were not immediately available for comment, and Amnesty was not able say how long the footage was.
A letter from them to Amnesty obtained by Reuters said "the oil release rate in the video is ... 1 to 3 barrels a minute, largely driven by ... girth weld leak failures."
"It is also worth noting that once the leak started, the leak rate would not decrease for some time, until the operator discovered the release and ... evacuated the pipeline."
Shell agreed in August that a Nigerian community affected by the spill can claim compensation in a British court, setting a precedent for such claims.
"We accept the need for due process to be followed. However, ... cynical games played by lawyers in both countries ... have prevented the swift payment of compensation in this case, and delayed clean-up operations," Bradley said.
She reiterated Shell's position that sabotage of pipelines by oil thieves was a greater cause of spills than accidents.
Amnesty admitted sabotage was a major problem but said the basis for the claim it is the main cause of spills was "an oil spill investigation process (by Shell) which is deeply flawed."
"The cause of spills, the volume of oil spilt, and other important parameters like the start date are not recorded in any credible way," the watchdog said.