Oil companies refuse to even talk about saving the world’s most endangered whale
April 2009. BP and Exxon have continued ignoring requests to join consultations with an international scientific panel to work to protect the world’s most endangered whales, threatened by oil and gas development around Sakhalin Island in Far East Russia.
Shell & Gazprom have come to the table
The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel (WGWAP), along with 11 prominent international scientists, has been in consultation with Shell and Gazprom subsidiary Sakhalin Energy over developments that may impact upon gray whales.
However, BP, Exxon and Rosneft, another Russian petroleum giant, did not respond to requests to participate.
“The continuing refusal of BP, Exxon and Rosneft to even consider joining other parties on the gray whale advisory panel is hampering conservation efforts and the flow of information–with potentially disastrous consequences for the whales,” said Dr Susan Lieberman, WWF International Species Director. “On the one hand, we have Shell and Gazprom at least looking at their plans to see if impacts on whales can be reduced and on the other hand we have BP, Exxon and Rosneft not even telling scientists what their plans are.”
The panel, convened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in February called for a moratorium on oil and gas development after “exceptionally low” counts for North Western Pacific (Russian) gray whales in a crucial feeding zone.
Just 25 breeding females
Even before the latest counts raised alarm bells, a total of only about 130 Russian gray whales and just 25 breeding females were thought to remain, with the species listed as critically endangered both in Russia and on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. The listing in Russia imposes obligations for the special protection of such species and their habitats by minimizing activities that could lead to population decline or habitat destruction.
The WGWAP said in its report published in February that “This scarcity (of gray whales) may have been related to underwater noise produced during onshore pile driving activities undertaken by Exxon Neftegas Limited (ENL) on the northern Piltun barrier split adjacent to the Odoptu block”.
The Panel had previously noted in a letter to Prime Minister Putin that they “have been hampered by the unwillingness of ENL to allow open consideration of gray whale data collected under its partnership arrangement with Sakhalin Energy.”
Last year also saw the Elvary joint venture between Rosneft & BP conducting seismic surveys immediately to the north of the whale feeding area. The company chose to ignore recommendations from the panel, failing to conduct any real “noise monitoring” of their activities.
Sakhalin Marine Federal Wildlife Reserve
A proposal to create a Sakhalin Marine Federal Wildlife Reserve for key gray whale habitat along the Piltun Spit is currently under review by Russian authorities, with WWF-Russia last year lodging the required environmental and economic justifications, and this year conducting public consultations.
The reserve would also protect Piltun Bay’s shallow waters critical not just to the nutrition of gray whales but also to sustaining rich fishing grounds. Adjacent coastal areas are important for migratory birds and are in the “shadow list” of the Ramsar international convention on wetlands.
Threatened by oil & gas industries
However, oil and gas development and associated shipping and pipeline infrastructure is already threatening to fragment the proposed reserve. The environmental policies proposed by Sakhalin project development partners have been judged inadequate by the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
A number of NGOs including WWF-Russia last month wrote to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, requesting a moratorium on all oil and gas project construction and surveying activities in the area that may negatively impact the dwindling gray whale population until a committee has investigated the scale of the impacts on the whales