GENEVA – A consortium led by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos. should halt operations and delay further development of oil and gas fields near gray whale feeding grounds off Russia’s far-eastern Sakhalin island, an independent study recommended Wednesday.
Commercial whaling has reduced the gray whale population off Sakhalin to about 100 and the population is now listed by the Swiss-based World Conservation Union, also known as IUCN, as “critically endangered.”
“Existing and planned large-scale offshore oil and gas activities pose potentially catastrophic threats to the population,” said the 131-page report, which was commissioned by the Sakhalin Energy consortium and organized by IUCN.
“Two major development projects — Sakhalin I and Sakhalin II — occur close to the nearshore and offshore feeding areas and their activities are of great conservation concern,” the report explained.
Whales could be killed in collisions with vessels, while their habitat could be harmed by oil contamination and loud noise, the report said.
“Even with no additional risks to the population beyond those it faces at present, there is some risk that the population will not recover,” the report warned. “Most importantly, the loss of one additional female per year … would be sufficient to drive the population toward extinction.”
Waiting for conclusive scientific proof of the threat to gray whales could condemn the marine mammals to extinction, the report said.
“Action to prevent or mitigate risk needs to be taken based on the assumption that an impact will occur, until it is shown that it will not,” it added.
The report did not entirely condemn the project, saying that certain risks could be considerably reduced — particularly the possibility of leakage while oil is being transferred from platform to tankers — once the current, second phase of construction of the project is completed.
“We accept this challenge and are confident that we can develop an acceptable way forward based on the application of a conservative risk management approach, as recommended by the panel,” said Ian Craig, chief executive of Sakhalin Energy.
The report expressed particular concern about pipeline routing, saying possible oil spills could seriously affect the gray whale habitat in the Piltun Lagoon.
“We accept the need to look at alternative route options for the offshore pipelines at Piltun,” Craig said. “The final decision will consider all aspects including onshore impact.”
But environmental groups stressed that the consortium must stop all operations and construction on the project immediately.
“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, head of Pacific Environment, a conservation organization that monitors development of the oil industry on Sakhalin.
SAM CAGE, Associated Press Writer