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Oil and gas platform threatens Critically Endangered whale

By Helen Roddis - 02 Apr 2011 15:27:0 GMT
Oil and gas platform threatens Critically Endangered whale

A proposal to build a new oil and gas platform off Russia's Sakhalin Island is causing controversy among conservationists.

Sakhalin Energy, the company behind the plans, already has two platforms in the area but wishes to build a third platform starting in the coming year.

Starkly opposed to the platform's development is an international coalition of leading NGOs – which includes WWF, IFAW, Pacific Environment and Sakhalin Environment Watch - who claim that the project has not been subject to appropriate environmental risk assessments.

The biggest concern is the proximity of the proposed platform to the feeding grounds of the Critically Endangered Western gray whale.

The area earmarked for the project is near Piltun Bay, the primary feeding area for Western gray whale mothers and calves. Recent estimates indicate that there could be fewer than 130 whales remaining, and the death of just 1 or 2 females per year could potentially lead to the extinction of this magnificent marine mammal.

The coalition has submitted a Statement of Concern to the Russian Inter-departmental Working Group on the Conservation of Western Gray Whales to this effect, highlighting the potentially devastating impact of the project.

Sakhalin Energy had previously eliminated the need for a third platform, acknowledging that having two rather than three platforms was preferable due to a ''smaller footprint with consequent reduced environmental impact''.

In a dramatic about-turn, the company now plans to conduct a seismic survey this summer to determine the best location for a new platform.

Seismic surveys involve shooting loud pulses of noise into the ocean floor, and environmentalists fear that this can generate an unacceptable level of risk to whales that depend on sound for communication, feeding and navigation.

According to a WWF press report, three seismic surveys were conducted in or near whale feeding habitat last summer and are believed to have caused severe strain to the animals.

''It is possible that cumulative impacts of major oil and gas development operations in the whale's feeding area off Sakhalin Island have had a significant effect on the whale population, and these impacts have yet to be adequately assessed by whale scientists,'' said Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment.

In the absence of a proper and comprehensive assessment of the projects environmental impact, scientific advisory bodies are calling on the companies involved to halt the development until its effects can be determined and fully understood.