Whales May Be Doomed by Russia Oil Project, Groups Say

James Owen
for National Geographic News
May 8, 2006
Development of oil and gas fields in Russia's Far East would expose the
highly endangered western gray whale to the threat of a pollution
disaster that could take years to clean up, a new report warns.

Should a major oil spill occur off eastern Siberia, the event could push one of the world's rarest whales into extinction, environmentalists say. (Also see "Oil Spills Pollute Indefinitely and Invisibly, Study Says" [2002].)

The warning is just the latest raised by wildlife campaigners fighting an oil and gas program on the Siberian island of Sakhalin in the Sea of Okhotsk (map of Russia). The project's estimated cost is equivalent to 20 billion U.S. dollars.

The report was commissioned by WWF, the global conservation group. It says icy seas around Sakhalin, which can remain frozen for six months or more, could delay an oil-cleanup operation for up to six months.

Such a disaster could ruin the feeding grounds of the last known population of western gray whales, the report adds.

"This is the most difficult place on Earth to have to respond to an oil spill," said Paul Steele, WWF International's chief operating officer, based in Gland, Switzerland.

"Even with the latest technology it would be impossible to clean up oil spills" six months out of the year, Steele added.

"Wave heights in spring and winter are often five times higher than current recovery methods can cope with."

Recent surveys suggest just 123 adult western gray whales still survive.

Whale experts say the death of just one extra female per year would likely lead to the western gray whale's extinction.

Campaigners also noted more emaciated whales in the region last summer. WWF says this suggests the animals' feeding is being disrupted by construction off Sakhalin.

The island, which lies north of Japan, is as long as Britain and is rich in oil and gas reserves.

Sakhalin Energy is majority-owned by the Shell Group energy corporation and aims to deliver 150,000 barrels of oil a day and 9.6 million metric tons (10.6 million tons) of liquefied natural gas a year.

Oil Pipelines

The development, due to be completed next year, includes a drilling platform, gas plant, export facilities, and some 500 miles (800 kilometers) of oil and gas pipelines, which will cross about a thousand rivers and streams.

Western gray whales migrate to seas off northeast Sakhalin each summer to feed. The island's rivers are important spawning grounds for salmon species.

James Leaton, extractive-industries policy officer for WWF, says there's a 24 percent chance of an oil spill during the lifetime of the project.

He says wildlife experts are also concerned about underwater noise levels during construction, which at times exceeded 140 decibels last year—louder than the typical thunderclap.

And while Sakhalin Energy had marine mammal experts on hand to monitor how whales reacted to construction noise, weather conditions made the animals difficult to spot.

"When the platform was put up, for example, it was completely foggy, and [whale monitors] couldn't see more than a couple of hundred meters," or about 700 feet, Leaton said.

He says Sakhalin Energy is proceeding with its construction schedule despite a lack of information about how the whales are reacting.

"This is the only known feeding area for western gray whales, so if they're displaced or are stressed by the noise, they may not get enough food to survive the winter," Leaton added.

WWF also says the laying of underground pipelines on Sakhalin has damaged and diverted rivers, causing erosion and clouding them with sediments which could prevent salmon from laying their eggs.

Industry Reaction

Sakhalin Energy denies its activities are environmentally damaging or that an oil spill incident would be difficult to respond to.

Ivan Chernyakhovskiy, spokesperson for the company, says the sea ice off Sakhalin does not form a single solid sheet but contains numerous open "leads" in which spilt oil could accumulate.

"Oil can be recovered from these," he said. "While ice cover can restrict access to oiled areas, shorebound ice may also act to prevent oiling of shorelines by marine spills."

In the case of oil trapped under ice, Chernyakhovskiy says Sakhalin Energy's ice-breaking standby vessels can break through the ice and bring oil to the surface for recovery.

He says the company is also working alongside a team of leading whale scientists—the Western Gray Whales Advisory Panel, which was established by the energy company—to manage risks that might harm the animals.

Following advice from the panel, Sakhalin Energy changed the route of its offshore section of pipeline in 2005 to avoid the whales' feeding area, Chernyakhovskiy said.

"From the data we have analyzed to date, there is no obvious difference in distribution, abundance, or behavior of the whales, so an immediate short-term impact has not occurred," he added.

And of the salmon rivers that so far could be affected by new pipelines, less than 2 percent of spawning grounds could potentially be impacted, he said.

Shell Group, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant leading the project, is currently seeking a loan worth 300 million U.S. dollars from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to help fund the Sakhalin development.

But campaigners say this funding should be blocked, insisting environmental concerns have yet to be properly addressed.

"Shell is blatantly ignoring international concern and scientific advice," said Andy Ottaway, director of Campaign Whale, based in Lewes, England.

"It would be scandalous if public funds were used to back this project," he added.

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