Sacred Distrust: Today’s Sakhalin Island

Sakhalin-II caused severe environmental and social damage

Sakhalin-II caused severe environmental and social damage

Posted by Rachel James and Leah Zimmerman.

On the morning of September 7, 2008, Exxon and Sakhalin Energy prepared to face off in a much-anticipated soccer match to celebrate Oil Workers’ Day. Meanwhile, we (Rachel and Leah, two Pacific Environment staffers) packed a vehicle and headed north on the island with two staffers from Sakhalin Environment Watch, including Dmitry Lisitsyn, a superstar of the Russian Far East environmental movement. We traveled with Dmitry and Katya for three days along the Sakhalin-II pipeline route, a several hundred mile gash running the length of the otherwise wild island.

Dmitry’s questions are relentless. Whether addressing us, shopkeepers on the side of the road, or construction workers on the pipeline route, Dmitry is able to disarm and charm, while extracting critical information with measured precision. For us, time with Dmitry is a lesson in the art of community organizing as well as a lesson about Sakhalin-II itself.

We are struck time and time again by similarities between Shell’s activities on Sakhalin Island and the company’s current strategies in the Alaskan Arctic. Shell could easily write a textbook on how to break promises, give and take bribes, buy off scientists, employ divide and conquer tactics with local opposition, and emasculate environmental assessment processes.

Sakhalin Island was once a prison destination. Today, oil and gas pipeline infrastructure crisscross the island and inflation from the flux of oil executives and construction works has seriously changed the capital city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. A two-room apartment goes for an exorbitant $1600/month, food prices are among the highest in Russia, and luxury SUVs can be counted by the dozens. While oil executives enjoy a luxurious lifestyle on Sakhalin, Sakhaliners bear the brunt of the grossly inflated costs for food and housing in addition to the devastating environmental, social and economic damage Sakhalin-II brought.

Now that construction of Sakhalin-II is nearing completion, Sakhalin Environment Watch predicts its next great battle will be poaching. We saw first-hand this week how Sakhalin’s rivers, like many on Kamchatka, are being raped by poachers who operate without fear of punishment from disempowered or corrupt government agencies. Imagine thousands of salmon returning to spawn in the river where they were born after years at sea. Now imagine a net stretched across the entire mouth of the river, preventing only a handful of fierce jumpers from among the thousands to return upstream to spawn. After a few years of this, we don’t understand why people are surprised that there are no fish left in the rivers. And so, Dmitry and SEW plot their next move …

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