Here is Rich Cookson’s third blog from Sakhalin.

“In early-morning off-the-record briefings, Sakhalin Energy’s (SE) employees – many of them from Shell – insist that the company is committed to protecting the island’s environment. They say, for instance, that the company has new scientific data which proves that its offshore activities have had no discernable impact on the western gray whales. But it remains unpublished and SE says it cannot provide any further details.

What’s clear is that the company has ignored advice from a panel of independent scientists, convened under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It warned that the western gray whale “is on the edge of survival”, and continued: “The existing and planned large-scale offshore oil and gas activities pose potentially catastrophic threats to the population”.

Emphasising the urgency of the conservation effort, the report stated: “the anticipation and avoidance of potential risks to the population is essential. Waiting for conclusive scientific proof that a particular activity or set of activities is having a population-level effect is not an appropriate approach for ensuring the conservation of this population”. It’s conclusion was clear: “the most precautionary approach would be to suspend present operations and delay further development of the oil and gas reserves in the vicinity of the gray whale feeding grounds off Sakhalin, and especially the near-shore feeding ground hat is used preferentially by mothers and calves”.

The scientific panel identified four risks to the whales: noise and disturbance to their habitat during construction; ship strike during construction; physical damage to their feeding grounds; and the potential exposure of whales, their prey or their habitat to oil spills and gas releases. On noise, they found, “SE documents err on the side of optimism in the face of uncertainty and lack specificity in their proposed mitigation measures. Every effort must be made to separate the development activities from the whales in space and time”.

They concluded that although the risk of ship strike is “not quantifiable”, it will increase because of increased construction traffic and then with increased no of ships transporting oil and gas from new terminal at Prigorodnoye in Aniva Bay at the south of the island.

On oil spills, they stated: “when viewed over the lifetime of the project, the risks of a spill during Phase 2 are considerable”.

And on disturbance to the whales’ feeding ground, the report said: “It is essential that their foraging areas off the eastern coast of Sakhalin Island remain unspoilt and productive”. The scientists said they were “disappointed at the relatively superficial consideration given to this issue by SE”.

Even in the face of all these risks, leaving the oil and gas where it is was simply not an option for SE.

A second independent report of data presented at a conference in Vancouver in April this year, putting the number of adult whales at 123 in 2006, compared to 113 in 2004 – something that SE emphasizes repeatedly even though half the difference was due to improved monitoring techniques, rather than a real increases.

This report, too, issued a blunt warning: “The loss of just one additional female per year in the Sakhalin area, if it is additional to other losses, will likely cause the population to decline towards extinction.”

It considered other threats to the whales, in addition to the risk from noise. The sea off Sakhalin ices over during the winter, leading to serious risk of upturned sheets of sea ice damaging pipelines close to the shore. “Continued work is needed to develop response strategies and methods for oil is spilled on or under the ice. The degree to which oil can be recovered is highly uncertain,” the report warned. Environmental NGOs emphasise that there are no proven methods for dealing with oil spills on ice – and even that SE’s experts talk of the oil industry’s inexperience. The method most likely to be used here is in-situ burning: setting fire to the oil from ice-breaker ships.

The scientists were also highly critical of the scientific information provided to them by SE. “On the whole, none of the behaviour-, distribution-, or abundance-related documents provided to [us] for the April 2006 Vancouver meeting were linked to acoustic data… [therefore] no definitive conclusion can be drawn from the presented documents with regard to the potential impacts on whales during the 2005 construction season. This is particularly regrettable considering that the most active Sakhalin Energy construction season to date is slated to begin in just two months, ie in early June 2006.”

More from Rich tomorrow.