Our policy director Doug Norlen recently attended the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel meeting as an observer. This panel, known as “WGWAP” for short, was set up by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and Shell/Sakhalin Energy to make recommendations to minimize the impacts from oil and gas development around Sakhalin on critically endangered Western Gray Whales. The primary feeding ground for Western Gray Whales is directly adjacent to Sakhalin Energy’s drilling area and two offshore platforms. The whales are impacted from noise, construction activities, ship traffic, and potentially by oil spills.
The idea behind the panel is a good one: let’s bring together some of the best scientists in the world to review Shell’s plans and make recommendations to make sure that it minimizes the harm to Western Gray Whales. This would work, if Shell took the panel’s recommendations seriously. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, Shell just does what it wants and ignores the panel’s recommendations.
This is especially apparent on noise issues. For over a year now, the panel’s scientists have asked Shell to use a certain set of noise criteria. Shell has refused, saying this is unnecessary and could lead to shutdowns in their operations and delays of their construction schedules. But isn’t the idea here to protect the critically endangered western gray whales? Shell’s refusal means that it can create noise “spikes” without shutting down its operations. Yet clearly this is not to the benefit of the whales.
Environmentalists who were observing the construction this summer warned that a lot of noise in early July appeared to be frightening the whales away. Shell says that its acoustic recordings either weren’t working or didn’t pick up the noise. But since Shell refuses to abide by the panel’s reasonable recommendations, there’s no way to be sure. Unfortunately, IUCN appears to have too close of a financial relationship with Shell to hold the company’s feet to the fire. Meanwhile, potential public lenders, including the export credit agencies of the US, UK and Japan, have set adherence to the WGWAP recommendations as a condition of their financing. Yet, they too appear to be letting Shell of the hook. After years of concern about Western Gray Whales, Shell is still avoiding its responsibilities to follow the advice of the scientists.
As Sakhalin Energy plans to conduct new seismic testing in 2009 – and seismic testing can have some of the most serious impacts on whales – it is too bad that the company continues to put its construction schedules behind the well-being of Western Gray Whales. This is just one more of the failures of the Sakhalin-II project, and one more reason the project should not be supported by public and private investors.