Nigeria’s cash-strapped government is suing some of the world’s biggest oil companies on claims they were involved in illegally exporting $12.7 billion of the country’s crude to the U.S. between 2011 and 2014.
The allegations relate to shipments by companies including Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Italian oil firm Eni SpA. Chevron said the claims lack merit and that its Nigerian unit complies with local law. Shell likewise said it adheres to Nigerian law. Eni said the allegations are groundless.
In documents filed in a Nigerian court in March, the Nigerian government claims those oil companies and others failed to properly declare 57 million barrels of crude they exported to the U.S. between 2011 and 2014.
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The government “has suffered huge and enormous financial loss as a result of the defendants’ under-declaration of the value of the crude oil they lifted and exported to the United States of America,” government lawyers wrote in a court filing.
The government is asking for nearly $407 million in lost revenue from Shell and almost $463 million from Chevron, as well as 21% interest a year from the companies until the purported lost revenue is paid.
The suit comes amid a broader campaign by Nigeria to crack down on perceived wrongdoing at companies operating there. Nigerian President Muhummadu Buhari also has pledged to fight corruption in the country, which is struggling through an economic crisis.
Last year, the government fined South African telecom giant MTN Group Ltd. $5.2 billion, alleging that it missed a deadline to deactivate more than five million unregistered SIM cards under regulations meant to combat terrorism. The company eventually agreed to pay a roughly $1.7 billion fine over three years. MTN said its Nigerian unit would “always ensure full compliance with its license terms and conditions as issued by Nigerian Communication Commission,” when it settled with the government in June.
Now, the government says an investigation into declining revenue from oil exports revealed a significant discrepancy between the volumes of oil the companies delivered abroad and the export volumes they declared to the state.
For instance, the government claims shipping records show Shell docked a tanker named Authentic at the Port of Philadelphia in January 2013. On board was nearly 1 million barrels of crude, at the time worth almost $108 million, that the government says the company failed to properly declare.
In total, the government claims Shell under-declared nearly 3.7 million barrels of crude that it delivered to the U.S. between 2011 and 2014, underpaying Nigeria almost $407 million.
The government claims Chevron under-declared 4.2 million barrels of crude shipped to the U.S. worth almost $463 million.
Shell and Chevron said they were aware of the litigation.
“We continue to conduct our business in Nigeria in compliance with all applicable laws,” Shell said in an email.
Chevron said the allegations lack “any merit whatsoever and we will vigorously defend our rights. The operations of Chevron Nigeria Limited that are the subject of this lawsuit, are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in Nigeria.”
Eni said its Nigerian subsidiary had received a request for a payment of about $160 million last March, but said it “believes the claim has no ground and shall resist in court.”
Nigeria’s federal high court in Lagos on Friday struck down an effort by Chevron to get the case dismissed. Chevron claimed the government case lacked reasonable cause.
“It is premature to dismiss the case at this stage,” Justice Cecilia Olatoregun said in a ruling. The case has been adjourned to Oct. 25.
Nigeria’s parliament has set up a committee to investigate oil exports, claiming more than $3 billion of crude was also illegally exported to China and nearly $840 million to Norway from 2011 to 2014.
“As of today, the country has to its credit over $17 billion of recoverable shortfalls from undeclared crude oil exports to global destinations,” Representative Johnson Agbonayinma told Nigeria’s House of Representatives last week.
Nigeria’s oil minister, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu said he wants to bring in external auditors to review the evidence of the case.
“Times are very difficult right now for the oil industry, and this is not the time to rumple the water too much,” Mr. Kachikwu said in an interview outside of Washington, D.C., last week. “But that’s not to say that if people have in fact committed a crime that you will not go after it to try and recover.”
Until recently, Nigeria was Africa’s largest oil producer, but the country has been hit hard by the sharp drop in oil prices and longstanding instability in its oil-rich south that has reduced its output and helped push the economy into recession.
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