Shell pipeline puts gray whales in peril

Posted: 15 March 2005

The controversial Shell oil and gas project at Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East is threatening the western gray whale population with extinction, warn conservation groups.

Gray whale baby calf. Photo: Jim Dorsey/Cetacean Society International
Gray whale baby calf. Photo: Jim Dorsey/Cetacean Society International
This is the face of a baby gray whale, coming close to look at the photographer. Can you see her eye? Although babies are innocently curious about everything, most whale and dolphin mothers elsewhere would not allow this, and whale watchers know not to ever get between a mother and calf.© Jim Dorsey/Cetacean Society International
Plans to build off-shore platforms and pipelines under phase two of Shell's oil project at Sakhalin would destroy the whales' only feeding grounds, warn a leading panel of experts. The group known as the International Scientific Review (ISRP) was set up by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to determine the risks posed to the western gray whale under Sakhalin II. The panel have criticised Shell's proposed safeguard measures, and conclude that, "the most precautionary approach would be to suspend present operations and delay further development of the oil and gas reserves in the vicinity of the gray whale feeding grounds off Sakhalin, and especially the critical nearshore feeding ground that is used preferentially by mothers and calves."

"If Shell routes this pipeline right through the heart of the whales' feeding grounds, it is potentially condemning them to extinction," said Paul Steele, WWF's Chief Operating Officer.

Critical habitat

The area around Sakhalin is home to a wealth of rare and endangered species such as Steller sea lions, sea eagles, seals, and vast colonies of seabirds. The conservation group, WWF, believes that it is absolutely critical to the survival of the whales.

Current threats to these whales include illegal harpooning and entanglement in fishing gear. The ISRP's report warns that Shell's Sakhalin II project would further endanger the gray whales' existence through noise and disturbance, physical damage to their feeding grounds, ship collisions, and threats from oil spills and gas releases once the pipeline is built.

Fewer than 100 western gray whales remain in the Pacific Ocean after the ravages of commercial whaling off Russia, Korea, and Japan between the 1890s and 1960s. The panel warns that the death of just one each year, out of the 23 reproductive females left, would be enough to drive the population to extinction.

Environmental groups are calling on Shell to immediately halt oil production at its existing Molipak platform and to delay a proposed new platform and pipeline construction. The groups have been urging Shell to move the new platform at least 12 miles from shore to provide greater protection for the whales, while still allowing Shell to conduct oil drilling operations.

"If Shell is really concerned about gray whales, then it only has one choice: to halt the project and change its design to protect western gray whales," said David Gordon, Executive Director of Pacific Environment, an NGO that monitors Sakhalin oil development.

Information gaps

The groups have also criticised the oil company for withholding information needed to conduct a complete review of the project's impact on gray whales. The independent panel's report refers repeatedly to Shell's "information gaps".

"This is a glaring example of Shell's concealment of public interest information about the negative environmental impacts of Sakhalin II," said Peter Hlobil of CEE Bankwatch Network.

The environmental groups have also called on international financial institutions considering support for the Sakhalin II project to reject financing a project that is likely to lead to the extinction of western gray whales.

Friends of the Earth Sakhalin Campaigner Nick Rau said, "Given the evidence put forward by the panel, there is no way that any financial institution committed to good environmental practice can justify providing funding for this project. Taxpayers money must not and should not be used to finance the destruction of the western grey whale."

In 2003 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) determined that the Sakhalin II project's Environmental and Social Impact Assessment is "unfit for purpose" and said that it will not finance the project unless fundamental social and environmental problems are resolved. Support is also being considered by Japan Bank for International Co-operation, the US Export-Import Bank, and the U.K. Export Credits Guarantee Department. A total of $US5 billion is being sought from these public lenders.

"The panel points out that the loss of one additional adult female per year would be sufficient to drive the population towards extinction with high probability," said Doug Norlen of Pacific Environment. "Public banks shouldn't finance extinction."

Concern is also being expressed over the environmental damage to the Sakhalin community's fisheries, especially on impacts to wild salmon populations, as well as the risk of catastrophic oil spills from export tankers in treacherous waters.

Shell sees the US$ 12 billion Sakhalin II project, which will take oil gas from Siberia to Japan and Asia, as vital to its future earnings.

"While Shell fixates on its financial returns, the western gray whale is at the point of no return," said Dmitry Lisitsyn, Chairman of the Sakhalin Island-based Sakhalin Environment Watch.

Related links:

The International Scientific Review Panel's report (PDF†).

Background information on the Sakhalin II project's controversies Pacific Environment