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Unexpected friends

Apr 6th 2009


The environmental risks and rewards of offshore oil

FATE has not been kind to the western grey whale. Its numbers have dwindled to 130 or so, leaving it “critically endangered” in the eyes of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the body that dispenses such labels. Fishing-nets, speeding ships, pollution and coastal development threaten the few that remain. Most recently, drilling for oil and gas in their main summer feeding grounds, near Sakhalin island off Russia’s Pacific coast, has brought fresh risks for the luckless creatures. Yet the rush to develop Sakhalin’s offshore fields may yet be the saviour of the species.

When drilling was first mooted in the 1990s, there were muted complaints. When a consortium called Sakhalin Energy, led by Royal Dutch Shell, announced plans to build an oil platform and lay pipelines in the only bay where the whales were known to congregate, these protests proliferated.


In response, the consortium established an independent panel to advise it on how best to protect the whales and promised to fund its work. It subsequently agreed to change the route of the pipeline at the panel’s suggestion, although it refused to move the platform, as other critics had demanded. It also agreed either to follow the panel’s recommendations in future or to explain publicly why it was rejecting them.

Next, the Russian government developed a sudden interest in Sakhalin Energy’s environmental safeguards. It said that the consortium had inflicted great damage on local seas and forests (although it did not seem terribly interested in the whales). The consortium duly committed itself to another round of green good works. But Russian regulators seemed implacable—until, that is, Shell and its partners sold a majority stake in the venture to Gazprom, Russia’s whale-sized state-owned gas firm.

That was in 2006. Since then, the fuss has died down. The regulators have levied a few million dollars’ worth of fines over illegally felled trees and declared themselves satisfied. The platforms and pipelines are now complete. Sakhalin Energy exported its first cargo of liquefied natural gas last week. The project, says Shell, is an engineering triumph and a commercial success despite all the controversy.

But has it been a success for the whales? Sakhalin Energy says their number seems to be growing by 2.5% a year, although Ian Craig, the firm’s boss, admits that the cause might be greater scrutiny rather than population growth. The scientists on the panel still seem worried. They complain that the firm has not always provided the information they need to assess the threat to the whales. It also has not always followed advice the scientists’ advice about how noisy construction might scare the animals away, for example, or the speed that boats should travel to minimise the risk of hitting the whales. The scientists warn that the loss of just a few fertile females would be enough to tip the population into irrevocable decline. Last summer, there seemed to be far fewer whales around than normal.

On the other hand, the panel knows this only because Sakhalin Energy funds lots of research on the whales. As a result, it has discovered that they have a wider range than originally thought, which might explain why so few of them showed up off Sakhalin island last year.

Yet no one knows where the whales go during the winter, and so what other threats they face beyond noisy construction work and fast-moving ships off Sakhalin island. Some get caught in fishing-nets off Japan but then the trail goes cold. Their cousins on the other side of the Pacific, the eastern grey whales, spend their summers in Alaskan waters and their winters along the coast of Mexico. So it seems reasonable to assume that the western ones head south to the shores of southern China or thereabouts. There is much more development in that part of the world, and far more ships zip about there than off Sakhalin island. Oil rigs and pipelines may be the least of the whales’ worries.

That is no reason to let oil firms run amok off Sakhalin, of course, particularly those that are not fully engaging with the scientists. (A consortium led by Exxon Mobil is exploiting other oil- and gasfields nearby and has declined an invitation to work with the panel.)

Given all the other risks and unknowns, environmentalists point out, it is all the more important to make sure the whales are safe in their summer home at least. Meanwhile, marine biologists are busy trying to learn more about the rest of their lives. There is talk of fitting radio tags to some this summer. But the spur to all this research, and the funding for much of it, derives from the oil projects. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for creatures with a lot as sorry as the western grey whale, a nearby oil project is something of a blessing.

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