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Oil platform must be halted to save critically endangered whale

Posted on 31 March 2011

The Russian government must oppose the development of a proposed oil and gas platform off Russia’s Sakhalin Island because the project has not been subject to appropriate environmental risk assessments, according to an international coalition of leading NGOs.

The coalition, which includes WWF, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Pacific Environment and Sakhalin Environment Watch, will submit a Statement of Concern to the Russian Inter-departmental Working Group on the Conservation of Western Gray Whales, a group of oil industry representatives and Russian government officials meeting Friday to discuss off-shore oil exploration near the feeding grounds of the critically endangered Western gray whale.

“The project may have a potentially devastating impact on the critically endangered Western gray whales,” the statement says. “Sakhalin Energy has a legal, social and ethical responsibility to ensure the project does not have unacceptable levels of damage to the marine environment, and the fragile species that live within it.”

The additional platform represents a dramatic expansion of the Sakhalin II project operated by Sakhalin Energy – a consortium of Shell, Gazprom, Mitsui and Mitsubishi – near Piltun Bay, the primary feeding area for Western gray whale mothers and calves. Recent estimates indicate that there could be fewer than 130 whales remaining, and scientific experts note that the death of just 1-2 females per year could lead to population extinction.

“The Russian Inter-departmental Working Group on the Conservation of Western Gray Whales has the future of the Western gray whale as its core responsibility, and must therefore act in the best interest of the whales, not in the interests of oil companies, and recommend that the platform not go ahead,” said Aleksey Knizhnikov of WWF-Russia.

Sakhalin Energy received the necessary approvals for the Sakhalin II project based on just two platforms, with its own analyses indicating that drilling technology advances eliminated the need for a third. The company acknowledged that having two rather than three platforms was preferable due to a “smaller footprint with consequent reduced environmental impact”. Moreover, a previous Sakhalin Energy report shows that the area being proposed for the third platform is unsuitable due to an unstable clay seabed in the earthquake-prone area.

The company plans to conduct a seismic survey this summer to determine the best location for the platform. The environmental groups say that seismic surveys, which involve shooting loud pulses of noise into the ocean floor, can generate an unacceptable level of risk to whales that depend on sound for communication, feeding and navigation. Three seismic surveys were conducted in or near whale feeding habitat last summer and are believed to have caused severe pressure on the animals. Moreover, the Sakhalin Energy seismic survey for 2011 is planned to be undertaken before the effects of previous surveys on the whales have been fully understood.

“It is possible that cumulative impacts of major oil and gas development operations in the whale’s feeding area off Sakhalin Island have had a significant effect on the whale population, and these impacts have yet to be adequately assessed by whale scientists,” said Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment. Other companies operating in the area include Exxon Neftegas Ltd., Rosneft and BP.

The environmental groups are requesting that activities on the third oil platform planned by Sakhalin Energy be dropped as developers have failed to comply with basic operational standards. The organizations highlight the lack of a dedicated environmental impact assessment for all activities associated with the platform as well as a comprehensive review of the collective impacts of current and planned projects in the area.

Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare called on companies and financial institutions involved to heed the advice of the scientific body monitoring the Sakhalin project. “What’s the rush? The world’s leading experts say industrial development of this sensitive coastline should not proceed until its environmental impact is properly assessed,” Ramage says. “In the wake of the BP disaster and other unfolding environmental tragedies around the world, we hope and believe the companies and institutions involved will reject the sudden effort to fast track a third drilling platform at Sakhalin.”

The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, a group of world renowned experts established to provide independent advice regarding the management of risks to Western gray whales, recently emphasized that “a piecemeal approach to assessment of the impacts of oil and gas development on the Sakhalin shelf, in which each new activity or item of infrastructure is considered in isolation, does not constitute ‘good practice’ from an ecological point of view as it dismisses and ignores cumulative or synergistic effects.”

Editor’s notes:

• The Sakhalin Energy document stating that two rather than three platforms “significantly reduces the potential for environmental impact” is available here.
• The most recent report of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP) is available here.

For further information:

WWF: Natalia Reiter, email: [email protected] Tel: +41 22 3649550
Pacific Environment: Doug Norlen, email: [email protected] Tel: +1 202 465 1650
Sakhalin Environment Watch: Dmitry Lisitsyn, email: [email protected] Tel: +7 4242 46 16 37
IFAW: Clare Sterling, email [email protected] Tel: 020 7587 6708

About WWF

WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world’s biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.

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