By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website
The oil multinational Shell is facing contempt of court proceedings in Nigeria over gas flaring.
Last month, a court ordered the company to stop flaring gas from oil wells in the country, which accounts for much of Africa's greenhouse gas emissions.
Shell has not halted the practice, so campaign groups have initiated proceedings for contempt of court, which can result in imprisonment.
Shell has appealed against the initial judgement and denies it is in contempt.
Waste of resources
In November, the Nigerian Federal Court, sitting in Benin City, ruled on a case brought by environmental and social groups on behalf of the Iwherekan community of Delta State.
They argued that flaring creates significant local pollution and health problems, and is inherently wasteful of a resource which could bring income to local communities.
International environmental groups also argue it is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, with flaring in Nigeria perhaps the biggest source of emissions in Africa.
Shell's operations have been hampered by a recent explosion
The Benin court ruled that gas flaring amounts to "...a gross violation of [the plaintiffs'] fundamental right to human life and dignity...", and that Shell and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation had broken national law by failing to carry out an environmental impact assessment.
By failing to stop flaring, as ordered by the court, campaigners now argue Shell is in contempt, and have initiated proceedings in the Federal Court.
"Since judgement was passed, Shell has not halted her illegal activities," said Nnimmo Bassey, of the Nigerian group Environmental Rights Action.
"We see a multinational corporation that has no respect for the rule of law, but who at every turn loves to characterise local people as vandals and saboteurs."
Earlier this month, an attack with explosives on an oil pipeline forced Shell to suspend extraction at two of its wells and delay shipments.
The background to this and other incidents is the view held by some Nigerian communities that they do not benefit from oil wealth, with profit going to the multinationals.
"It's astonishing that Shell has not complied with this court order preventing it from continuing gross violations of human rights," added Peter Roderick of the international organisation Climate Justice, which has been involved with the action.
"Its behaviour seriously undermines respect for the rule of law that its operations rely on."
In London, a Shell spokeswoman said that the company did not believe itself in contempt.
"The Benin High Court went ahead with its decision despite the fact that Shell Nigeria's preliminary appeal on jurisdiction was still outstanding," she told the BBC News website.
"In addition, the company has made a further appeal because it believes that the court did not adopt the correct procedure.
"Our appeals will be held by the Nigerian Court of Appeal; until then, our understanding is that we are not in contempt of court for continuing to flare gas."
The company says it flares the gas rather than processing it because there is no local market and no facilities which could liquefy it for export, though such facilities are now under development.
Shell and the Nigerian government have both committed to phase out flaring in Nigeria by 2008.
In 2004 the World Bank said that companies operating in Nigeria, which include Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, flare 75% of the gas that they produce.