Oil Development and Endangered Whales Collide in Russian Far East

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Russia, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - Sakhalin Energy has completed the installation of its third and final oil and gas production platform off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. Company officials were jubilant at completion on July 5, but whale conservationists warn that some of the world's most endangered whales have been driven off their feeding grounds by the construction noise, contrary to an agreement with the company.

An independent panel of scientists established by the IUCN-World Conservation Union today backed concerns expressed by WWF Russia and other environmental groups about the severe impact that high noise levels are having on western gray whales.

Sakhalin Energy, a consortium that includes Gazprom, Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi, is working on the Sakhalin II oil and gas development in the Sea of Okhotsk, northeast of Sakhalin Island.

The same waters off Sakhalin Island are the only known feeding ground for the western gray whales, which migrate between eastern Russia and southern China.

Western gray whale surfaces near Sakhalin Island. (Photo © Dave Weller courtesy IUCN)
With about 120 animals and only 25 to 35 reproductive females, this whale population is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, set up by IUCN in 2006, recommended in April that Sakhalin Energy adopt strict criteria for the management of noise from its construction activities.

This would require them to measure noise levels over a certain period of time and, if necessary, mitigate noise in the whales' feeding area if such criteria were exceeded.

In response to these recommendations, Sakhalin Energy stated it was "not technically feasible to implement the proposed criteria" and added that 2007 construction work had been planned on criteria "successfully used in 2006."

Today, in statement from the IUCN office in Geneva, the panel said, "The panel finds Sakhalin Energy's apparent decision to reject the noise criteria proposed in April for the 2007 season extremely disappointing and potentially unsafe for the western gray whale population. It has received no new information from the company to justify its decision."

"We are especially concerned that the company appears to have decided not to include thresholds for prolonged exposure to lower noise levels," the panel said.

"Without more rigorous noise management and mitigation efforts on the part of Sakhalin Energy and other companies operating in the region, their activities may have significant long-term effects on gray whales attempting to feed in this area," the panel warned. "Such a possibility is of particular concern with regard to pregnant females and females with calves."

On July 6, the day after construction was completed on the company's giant Piltun-Astokhskoye-B, PA-B, production platform, as tall as a 30 story building, Sakhalin Energy officials met with the environmentalists.

The Piltun-Astokhskoye-B oil platform during installation off Sakhalin Island (Photo courtesy Sakhalin Energy)
They presented the company's noise monitoring and whales sighting data for the previous two weeks to representatives of WWF, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Vernadsky Foundation.

Also present at the meeting were OAO Gazprom representative and the head of the Ocean Noise Laboratory of Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Dr. A. Vedenev.

The meeting was arranged to respond to allegations by the environmental organizations that excessive noise from the installation had caused the displacement of some western grey whales from a part of their feeding area, which Sakhalin Energy denies.

"The Sakhalin Energy Company has promised ecologists that it will finish construction works before whales come to their feeding ground near Piltun spit in mid-June," said Alexey Knizhnikov, WWF-Russia oil and gas program coordinator.

"Unfortunately, the company has failed to do it," he said. "The works at the Piltun-Astokhskaya-B platform were started two weeks after the deadline."

Vasily Spiridonov, WWF-Russia marine and coastal projects chief coordinator, said, "Ships that are involved in the platform construction works make low-frequency noise that may affect healthy feeding patterns of whales and harm their auditory system, which is crucial for their orientation capability."

"Although it is impossible to completely eliminate the noise, we are sure that the Sakhalin Energy Company is able to reduce the impact of the noise on the endangered species," Spiridonov said.

Company officials said after the meeting that that was no breach of the noise criteria adopted by Sakhalin Energy and "company's activities in installing PA-B platform topsides had no discernable impact on the endangered western grey whale population."

Western gray whale near Sakhalin Island (Photo © Dave Weller courtesy IUCN)
While WWF Russia said their staff had observed the disappearance of the whales as soon as the construction barge appeared, the company said WWF and IFAW did not present any data at the meeting, but merely expressed their opinion that whales had left the area.

"Noise levels have not risen above the thresholds that Sakhalin Energy has set for this operation. The acoustic buoys provide a reliable indication of the intensity of industrial noise and the extent of its reach," says Melanie Austin, one of the acousticians working in the north of Sakhalin to monitor Sakhalin Energy's offshore operations.

Doug Bell, Sakhalin Energy corporate environmental manager, said, "Sakhalin Energy has set strict noise criteria for marine activities above which we would take action to minimize possible impacts on the whales, including, if needed, suspension of work. However to date there has not been any noise above these threshold levels this season."

Oil from the PA-B platform will flow through offshore and onshore pipelines to an oil export terminal at Prigorodnoye in the south of Sakhalin Island. Oil production from the PA-B is expected to start in 2008.

Sakhalin Energy and the NGOs have agreed to continue talking. "We might have different understanding and interpretations, but WWF welcomes this meetings as proof of openness," said Knizhnikov.

Grigoriy Tsidulko, IFAW's Marine Mammals Programs Coordinator, said that though there may be differences of opinion, it was good to hear the basis for the company's position and it was also valuable to speak to its specialists.

The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel recommended in April that Sakhalin Energy adopt "dose-based approaches to managing noise from its construction activities."

The panel said mitigation action should be taken when the level of broadband noise received at the edge of the feeding area exceeds 130 decibels for 90 minutes.

The western Pacific population of gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus, is one of only two surviving populations of this species in the world. Both populations were brought near to extinction by commercial whaling.

The eastern Pacific population, which migrates annually between Mexico and Alaska/northeastern Siberia, has recovered substantially and now numbers about 20,000 individuals, but the western Pacific population, is estimated at only 120 individuals.

Western gray whales feed for about half the year, in the summer and autumn, and build stores of fat to provide energy during the calving and mating season, the IUCN panel explained, saying, "The primary feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island are therefore of major importance for the health and survival of the population."

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