On March 17, 2021, the Court of Milan issued a verdict fully acquitting all fifteen defendants, including oil and gas companies Eni SpA and Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Eni’s CEO, who were accused of obtaining rights to the Oil Prospecting License 245 block (OPL 245), an offshore oilfield in Nigeria, through bribery and corruption. In a trial that lasted almost three years, the Italian court found that there was “no case” supporting a finding of bribery and corruption. Although this decision means the court found that there was not sufficient evidence that bribery occurred, the precise reasoning of the court is not yet available as, under Italian law, courts have 90 days after issuing a verdict to publish an opinion explaining the decision.
As part of its statement praising the court’s decision, Shell explained that the matter began in 2011 when Shell attempted to settle a decade-long litigation and arbitration dispute with the government of Nigeria over OPL 245 – a drilling concession that the government of Nigeria had separately allocated to two different parties, Shell and Malabu Oil and Gas. According to Shell, it paid the Nigerian government for the rights to use OPL 245 as part of the 2011 Resolution Agreement, which should have resulted in Shell and Eni jointly holding the OPL 245 license equally, with Eni as the operator. Shell reports that OPL 245 remains undeveloped to this day.
Since the matter began in 2011, several jurisdictions have launched investigations into the conduct surrounding the awarding of rights to OPL 245. The US Department of Justice and the US Securities and Exchange Commission both initiated inquiries into Shell and Eni. The DOJ closed its investigations into each company in October 2019. The SEC closed its investigation into Shell in April of 2020. Separately, Eni agreed in April 2020 to pay the SEC $24.5 million to resolve allegations that it violated the books and records and internal controls provision of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in an unrelated matter. The SEC also closed its investigation into the OPL 245 matter at that time. Shell reported in 2019 that the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the OPL 245 matter. However, according to Shell’s March 17, 2021 statement, no updates were available.
In May 2020, the High Court of Justice in London also dismissed a $1.1 billion lawsuit brought by the Nigerian government against Shell, Eni, and other defendants, finding that the case was too similar to the matter already filed in Court of Milan, as both cases involved the same allegations, facts, participants, and remedies. Given this, the UK court found it did not have jurisdiction over the matter, primarily based on Article 29 of the Brussels Regulation, which allows a court to decline jurisdiction when two causes of action in different jurisdictions are so similar that it is more efficient to allow the initial case to proceed rather than risk conflicting judgments.