Saving the Last 130: The Oil Companies, the Banks and the Plight of the Western Gray Whale

02-wwf-whale_300dpiTo save the remaining members of a critically endangered species of whale from a drilling platform that threatens to destroy their only feeding ground, an environmental group follows the money trail

With less than 130 individuals left—and less than 26 breeding females, the Western Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), a baleen whale, is one of most endangered whales in the world. The whales feed only in the summer and only in one place: the northeastern part of Russia's Sakhalin Island, which lies in the North Pacific just off of Russia's east coast.

This wouldn't be a problem if the Sakhalin shelf didn't hold an estimated 14 billion barrels of oil and 96 trillion cubic feet of gas. And thus, the Western gray whale's struggle for survival has become a flashpoint between wildlife conservationists and the oil industry. (Sakhalin is also a habitat for three other endangered whale species: the North Pacific right whale, the bowhead whale and the beluga whale, though these whales also feed elsewhere.)

In 1996, two consortiums signed production-sharing deals to develop the reserves: Sakhalin-I, managed by Exxon Neftegas Limited (ENL), a subsidiary of ExxonMobil; and Sakhalin-II, managed by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd. In 2007, the Russian energy giant Gazprom took a majority interest (50 percent plus one share) in Sakhalin-II. The other owners of that consortium are Shell (27.5 percent), Mitsui (12.5 percent) and Mitsubishi (10 percent). The oil and gas from both projects is sold to Japan, South Korea, India, Kuwait, China and Taiwan.

OIL INDUSTRY: TRYING NOT TO MAKE WAVES

Sakhalin-I said that it is "committed to ongoing support of the gray whale research program and continues to work with Russian marine research institutes and the industry to study the population, behavior and habitat use by the whales, as well as characterize the natural environment including ambient sound."

In addition to supporting whale research, the consortiums have made some concessions to the environmentalists along the way. In 2005, for example, Sakhalin-II agreed to re-route its offshore pipeline to avoid the whales' feeding ground. And in 2009, following a recommendation by an international scientific panel, they agreed to suspend seismic testing during the summer, as the booming noise of seismic waves are known to harm whales and other cetaceans, such as dolphins, disrupting their ability to communicate, navigate, hunt and reproduce.

"WWF lauds the responsible and forward looking approach taken by Sakhalin Energy in heeding this call from the panel," said Aleksey Knizhnikov of the Russian office of international environmental group. "The results seen today demonstrate that collaborative science based initiatives like this panel process can succeed even on issues as complex as oil and gas development."

FOLLOWING THE MONEY TRAIL: A CALL FOR "URGENT ACTION"

But the feel-good days between the oil consortiums and the environmentalists are over, as Sakhalin-II has pushed the oil and gas meter into the red zone. The consortium wants to build an additional oil platform in addition to the two it already has, and it wants to build it right next to a vital feeding site of the western gray whales.

In response to this plan, WWF-UK isn't taking their fight to the consortium, instead "calling for urgent action from European banks to help prevent the threat to the habitat of the critically endangered western gray whale," according to senior species policy officer Heather Sohl. They have launched a viral online campaign, "The Last 130," calling on the general public to register their support and sign a petition urging the European lenders to the Sakhalin-II project—BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse and Standard Chartered—to oppose the additional platform and request that the project is limited to the original plan of two platforms. To highlight their cause, the environmental group floated an 11-meter artificial whale down the River Thames in London last month. The British DJ and artist Mr. Scruff has created an animation in support of WWF’s campaign.

WHERE CAN AN ENDANGERED WHALE EAT IN PEACE AROUND HERE?

"The western gray whale is on the verge of extinction, and the additional platform, which was never part of the original proposal, sets a dangerous precedent for all future oil and gas projects in the region," said Colin Butfield, WWF's head of campaigns. "WWF is calling on the banks to take action and oppose the plans—before it's too late for these critically endangered whales." The group says that if Sakhalin Energy's new plan is successful, the endangered whales will not only have to face additional seismic shock waves, but also an increased likelihood of oil spills, lethal whale and ship collisions, and chemical pollution."

The "last 130" just want to eat in peace and survive. The WWF campaign is a canny one, as it makes the connection between finance and species conservation: The banks hold the key. Lending money to support fossil fuel development doesn't just support a dirty energy industry that keeps the world addicted to fuels that cause global warming. In the case of Sakhalin-II, it threatens to exterminate a species whose ancestors first appeared in the Miocene period, between 23 to 5 million years ago. Today, thanks to whaling and now oil and gas development, they could be gone in just a few years. If WWF's campaign is successful and the banks agree to defund the Sakhalin expansion, it would send a strong message to energy companies: You can drill for dirty fuel, but not at the expense of a species, for that is far too high a price.

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NOTES

Kramer, Andrew E. "Shell cedes control of Sakhalin-2 to Gazprom." International Herald Tribune via The New York Times. December 1, 2006. Accessed February 27, 2012.
Medetsky, Anatoly. "Gazprom Opens Pipeline to Sakhalin." September 9, 2011. Accessed February 27, 2012.
Environment News Service. Western Gray Whales Get a Break From Noisy Oil Development." April 24, 2009. Accessed February 27, 2012.
International Union for Conservation of Nature. "Endangered whales at risk from rush to exploit offshore oil and gas in Russian Far East." August 3, 2010. Accessed February 27, 2012.
Biers, John. "Scientists Worry Seismic Testing Could Harm Whales." Newhouse News Service via Whales.org. April 12, 2004. Accessed February 27, 2012.
Ibid., 3.
Sohl, Heather. WWF-UK. Email received February 9, 2012.
WWF-UK. "Western gray whale spotted in the Thames." February 8, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2012.
Ibid.

image: WWF's artificial whale, floating down the River Thames, passes by the Houses of Parliament, London (credit: WWF)

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