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Sakhalin Whale Report Urges Prudence

Sakhalin Whale Report Urges Prudence

Independent Scientific Review Panel Reports on Sakhalin II Project’s Impact on Western Gray Whale

Gland, Switzerland, 16 February 2005 (IUCN - the World Conservation Union): The Independent Scientific Review Panel, convened by the World Conservation Union at the request of the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd (SEIC), releases its report today. The World Conservation Union, widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on species conservation, assembled the Panel of 14 leading scientists from Russia, Europe and North America.

The Panel, operating independently from IUCN, SEIC and other stakeholders, evaluated the potential implications of planned oil and gas developments on the critically endangered Western Gray Whale, which has a remaining population of only about 100 animals.

“SEIC has taken a bold step in commissioning this independent review, drawing on the world’s best available scientific knowledge” said Achim Steiner, IUCN Director General. “This process also sets a precedent for how oil, gas and mining companies, and indeed the governments who license their developments, can use the best independent scientific knowledge to evaluate project plans and make decisions.”

The Independent Scientific Review Panel evaluated scientific aspects of Western Gray Whale conservation in the context of Phase 2 of Sakhalin II, an integrated oil and gas project in the Northwest Pacific Ocean that is one of the largest foreign direct investments in Russia. The project is being developed by SEIC under a production sharing agreement with the Russian Federation and its Sakhalin Oblast. The Panel evaluated the risks, mitigation options and monitoring needs in relation to planned oil and gas developments, in particular the three pipeline options being considered by SEIC.

*Report’s Focus*

The primary question posed to the Panel was whether the risks associated with the Sakhalin II Phase 2 project could be managed in an effective way, allowing oil and gas development to proceed without further jeopardizing the survival and recovery of the critically endangered Western Gray Whale population.

The Panel reviewed SEIC’s plans and considered their proposed mitigation measures for minimizing possible impacts on the whales and the environment in which they live.

Whilst focusing on the Sakhalin II Phase 2 project, the Panel also considered the cumulative effects of the entire Sakhalin II project, other oil and gas projects off Sakhalin Island (especially Sakhalin I), and other human activities in the region. The Panel was not asked to develop prescriptive conclusions, but rather to provide an evidence-based analysis of issues and options.

*Pipeline Routes*

The Panel recognized that SEIC have invested substantial sums of money into research on Western Gray Whales, the assessment of risks associated with Sakhalin II and the development of approaches to try to reduce the risks of their project to the whales. However the Panel considered that SEIC had not provided a comprehensive, quantitative comparison of the three pipeline alternatives under consideration.

The “base case” route poses additional risks because, among other things, it crosses the southern portion of the primary whale foraging area and is in close proximity to the mouth of Piltun Lagoon. The two proposed alternatives pass farther south and avoid that problem.

The Panel identified four pipeline-associated risks: noise and disturbance during construction, ship strikes during construction, physical damage to habitat during construction, and potential exposure to oil spills and gas releases.

According to the Panel, Alternative 1 (the most southerly pipeline routing) appears to be the safest with regard to the first three of those risks. It also provides an advantage with regard to the fourth risk, as the routing is farther away from nearshore feeding grounds. The only obvious disadvantage of Alternative 1 identified by the Panel appears to be that the probability of a leak or rupture would be increased somewhat due to its greater overall length.

*Mitigating Risk*

The Panel’s report provides a detailed review of the individual threats to Western Gray Whales and proposed mitigation and monitoring measures: in particular acoustics (noise), ship strikes, oil exposure, and physical disturbance of the whales’ benthic food resource.

The Panel accepted that once completed and fully operational, Sakhalin II Phase 2 will considerably reduce certain types of risks to the whales. However certain other risks will increase as Phase 2 construction activity proceeds and some of these will remain throughout the lifetime of the project.

*Information Needs*

Among the key conclusions of the Panel’s Report is the finding that, despite the considerable documentation provided by SEIC, important information gaps left considerable uncertainty over many aspects of risk evaluation and the efficacy of proposed mitigation measures.

The Panel’s review identified several areas for future study including some that will require annual monitoring and some that will depend on circumstances (particularly in the event of a spill or similar emergency). The Panel believes that there is a pressing need for a comprehensive strategy to address not only oil and gas development, but also other threats in order to try to save the Western Gray Whales and their habitat.

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