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Whales Are More Precious Than Oil


WWF and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) published results of scientific assessment of the “Sakhalin-2” oil and gas project’s (Sakhalin Energy company) impact on the Okhotsk-Korean population of grey whales. The findings are distressing: if only three females perish, this grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) population will inevitably disappear.

An independent expert group of researchers has confirmed ecologists’ confidence: the “Sakhalin-2” oil and gas project threatens survival of grey whales, and the research carried out earlier by the oil industry workers themselves is only a “cover-up” for disturbed public opinion. However, the Sakhalin Energy company and the underlying SHELL corporation did not pay attention to the opinion of experts they had invited upon their own initiative, but publicly announced expansion of its activity on the Sakhalin shelf. But this is the only place in the world where whale females of the Okhotsk-Korean population nurse their babies and gain strength for long hibernation.
The representatives of the WWF, IFAW and other environmental organizations coalition are getting ready now for the meeting with the executives of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the US Export-Import Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation – these banks in particular are considering the possibility of credit extension to Sakhalin Energy for continuation of the petroleum production project. “The “Sakhalin-2” project is the biggest one throughout the entire history of the SHELL company, and in this case we see for ourselves its complete environmental and social irresponsibility”, says Igor Chestin, Director of the WWF of Russia. “We appeal to international financial institutions for not extending credits to this troublesome and unreliable project.”

The whale experts have come to two basic conclusions. Firstly, the data available as of today is insufficient to ensure protection for this whale population, which by the way was once considered extinct. The Okhotsk-Korean population is currently the smallest in the world– it only numbers 100 whales, out of which females that are able to give birth to babies make 23. The researchers have estimated that if only 3 females perish, these whales will not survive.

The second conclusion is – it is possible to reconcile oil production and safe existence of whales. However, that will require additional funds (according to different estimations – from $100 million to $4 billion). These funds are needed to transfer the future platform away from the whales’ feeding location – unfortunately, the animals can feed only on this particular plot of the world ocean being 60 km long and 4 km wide. There, near Piltun Bay on the north of Sakhalin, whales’ food – benthos, i.e. small Crustacea, – lives in abundance on the bottom. Whales scoop up ground silt and sand together with benthos, and then spit out everything unpalatable. Transfer of the oil-producing platform also means the necessity to drill a borehole horizontally – to draw it to the required location bypassing the whales’ “canteen”. But oil industry workers have not even estimated the exact cost of this work as they decided right away that whales are of no interest for them.

How does petroleum production threaten grey whales? The experts’ report outlines four major threats. Firstly, noise resulting from construction. This noise threatens to force the whales out of their “canteen”. However, these animals feed only for 5 months a year – near Sakhalin. If they go for hibernation without having put on enough fat, this would affect not only adult whales, part of whom may not live to see next summer, but would also impact pregnant females who will give birth to weak babies. Back in 2000, researchers already observed emaciated whales with prominent scapulas (a year before that, in 1999, oil industry workers installed the Molicpac, and the whales left their “canteen” being hungry). And the next phase of construction will be of much larger scale.

The second threat to whales is collisions with vessels, which will pass here in abundance. For this reason whales constantly perish all over the world.

The third threat is – the whales can simply stay without food. In the course of the construction, oil industry workers would disturb the bottom, and consequently, the majority of whales’ food will perish.

And finally, the last threat is – oil spillage that will necessarily occur as earthquakes are frequent in the area of Sakhalin, and oil-tankers quite often get distressed, thus causing oil spillage. Oil spillage is particularly dangerous in wintertime when ice prevents from removing oil at once. Then oil stays in water till spring killing all living substances. However, Sakhalin Energy assures that it is ready for oil spillage and is capable of removing it in the shortest possible time. But in last October, when a tanker belonging to the company was wrecked, and fuel-oil spilled into the sea, Sakhalin Energy demonstrated complete inability to remove the spillage – it took rescuers two days only to reach the location of wreck. This still remains an ecological disaster zone. This happened in the south of Sakhalin, in a densely populated area.

Sergey Komarov | alfa
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