The case involved five allegations of spills in Nigeria, and four of these were quashed by the court. On the fifth count, Shell was ordered to pay compensation, of an amount yet to be decided, guardian reports.
Shell said it was “studying the verdict”.
The case was brought in the Netherlands because of Shell’s dual headquartership, being both Dutch and British, and was brought by four Nigerian farmers co-sponsored by the international green campaigning group Friends of the Earth.
There was no immediate response from Friends of the Earth or the plaintiffs.
The case turned on whether Shell was responsible for the spills, through negligence and a failure to invest in proper safety systems of the kind that are required in developed countries, as the campaigners alleged, or whether – as Shell argued – the spills were mainly the result of local people attempting to steal oil from pipelines.
It is understood that the court took the view that four of the spills were caused by sabotage, as people tried to extract oil for their own purposes. In the case of the fifth, the finding was that Shell had been negligent in failing to prevent such sabotage.
But the farmers and green campaigners are expected to appeal against the verdict to a higher court.
Shell is accused of widespread spills across the regions of Nigeria where it operates, but the allegations in question concerned incidents in Goi, Ogoniland, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom.
Shell’s subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, said the main cause of oil spills in the country was from people taking oil for illegal refineries. Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of SPDC said: “We welcome the court’s ruling that all spill cases were caused by criminal activity. Oil pollution is a problem in Nigeria, affecting the daily lives of people in the Niger Delta. However, the vast majority of oil pollution is caused by oil thieves and illegal refiners. This causes major environmental and economic damage, and is the real tragedy of the Niger Delta.”
He added: “SPDC has made great efforts to raise awareness of the issue with the government of Nigeria, international bodies like the UN, the media and NGOs. We will continue to be at the forefront of discussions to find solutions. For SPDC no oil spill is acceptable and we are working hard to improve our performance on operational spills. In the past years we have seen a decline in operational spill volumes. These spills, however, were caused by sabotage and the court has, quite rightly, largely dismissed the claims.”