Western Gray Whales Get a Break From Noisy Oil Development
GENEVA, Switzerland, April 24, 2009 (ENS) - An oil and gas consortium has agreed to suspend this summer's planned seismic testing off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, the only feeding area for the critically endangered Western gray whale.

The decision by Sakhalin Energy, which is developing the Sakhalin II project, followed a recommendation today by an international scientific panel to halt further noisy seismic testing in the whales' feeding area near Piltun Bay on the western edge of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Western gray whales in Piltun Bay (Photo courtesy Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel)

The agreement was reached during a meeting of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel today in Geneva.

Convened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the 11-member panel of scientists met this week with representatives of Shell, Sakhalin Energy, Russian government officials, project lenders and environmental NGOs to review the most recent science on the whales.

The Western gray whale is one of the world’s most endangered whale populations. These whales feed only in the summer at the very time and place used by oil and gas companies to conduct their development activities before severe winter weather again closes in around the northeastern part of the oil-rich Sakhalin shelf.

While Sakhalin Energy has agreed to a moratorium on seismic exploration near Piltun Bay this summer, that does not mean that the feeding ground will be quiet enough for the whales to eat and for mothers to teach their calves to forage near the mouth of the bay.

Other energy companies that have not joined in the panel process are continuing with their noisy development activities.

Said Aleksey Knizhnikov from WWF-Russia, "Major international giants BP and Exxon have completely ignored pleas to join the panel, disregarded advice on how to mitigate the impacts of their activities, and refused to provide even basic information on what their activities are in the region."

The red rectangle on the main map outlines Piltun Bay. (Map courtesy Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel)

ExxonMobil holds 30 interest in the nearby Sakhalin-1 Project with other investors from Russia, Japan and India.

BP holds an interest in nearby Sakhalin V.

In a report issued today based on a multi-year photo record of the whales, the advisory panel identified two main feeding areas in proximity to the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin II oil and gas development projects - a nearshore feeding area adjacent to Piltun Bay, and an offshore area, east of Niyskiy Bay. Gray whales utilize these feeding areas during the ice-free season. More recently, western gray whales have also been identified feeding on the southeast coast of the Kamchatka peninsula.

The western Pacific population of gray whale, Esrichtiius robustus, is one of only two surviving populations of this species. Both populations were brought near to extinction by commercial whaling, but the eastern Pacific population, which migrates annually between Mexico and Alaska, has recovered and now numbers about 20,000 animals.

By comparison, the western Pacific population, which is believed to migrate between eastern Russia and China, is estimated at about 130 individuals, with only 25-35 reproductive females.

New research presented by the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel shows "a significant decline in sightings and behavior changes of the whales in their primary feeding area near Piltun Bay," the scientific panel said.

Oil and gas exploration activities in the area appear to have displaced the whales to deeper areas offshore, making it more difficult for whale calves to feed. Since the Western gray whale only feeds in the summertime, such displacement could be devastating to the struggling whale population.

"WWF lauds the responsible and forward looking approach taken by Sakhalin Energy in heeding this call from the panel," said Knizhnikov. "The results seen today demonstrate that collaborative science based initiatives like this panel process can succeed – even on issues as complex as oil and gas development."

Doug Norlen from Pacific Environment, an international NGO that has monitored Sakhalin oil and gas projects for over a decade, called on BP, Exxon and the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft to "abandon their reckless plans that threaten the western gray whales with extinction."

Western gray whale in Piltun Bay (Photo courtesy Sakhalin-1)

"Exxon is conducting acoustically loud pile driving, thrusting huge columns into the ground to build their facility at the exact time and place that the whales should be feeding," Norlen told ENS. "If you scare the Western gray whales off that place, the frightening thing is that they can go a whole year without proper feeding habitat."

"While we got a good outcome for this year from Sakhalin Energy, Exxon, BP and Rosneft are derelict in their responsibility to engage with science and independent scientists," Norlen said. "If there were an international court for environmental crimes, the executives of these companies would be in prison."

ExxonMobil holds 30 interest in the Sakhalin-1 Project, which includes three offshore fields and is one of the largest single foreign direct investments in Russia.

Operated by Exxon Neftegas Limited, the investors in the project include affiliates of Rosneft, RN-Astra (8.5%) and Sakhalinmorneftegas-Shelf (11.5%); the Japanese consortium SODECO (30%); and the Indian state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd. (20%).

On its website, the Sakhalin-1 Consortium says its support of the gray whale population research program amounted to US$17 million between 1997 and 2007, expanded the knowledge base about the species, and involved prominent Russian and Western whale scientists.

Sakhalin I says the project is "committed to ongoing support of the gray whale research program and continues to work with Russian marine research institutes and the industry to study the population, behavior and habitat use by the whales, as well as characterize the natural environment including ambient sound."

BP is involved in the Sakhalin V project

Norlen called the scientific panel's recommendations "absolutely precedent setting."

"It is precedent setting because," he said, "it means that if other companies such as Exxon, BP and Rosneft do not begin to cooperate with this process and do not abide by the moratorium, they will be complict in driving the Western gray whale closer to extinction."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.