Oil Rig Could be the Last Straw for Western Gray Whales
In a move that could signal the end for critically endangered western gray whales, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company — owned in part by Shell — has announced plans to build a major oil platform near Sakhalin Island. The coastal waters are a critical feeding ground and nursery for western gray whales, and are already dotted with several offshore oil and natural gas platforms. This proposed platform — the third for Sakhalin Energy — is both unnecessary and irresponsible.
Less than 150 western gray whales remain alive today. Of these, possibly 30 are actively-breeding females. And, every one of these females is precious. The future for these whales will be determined by these 30 females and their calves. Anything that negatively impacts these females’ breeding successes could doom the entire population. The loss of even a few breeding females could mean the end for the population.
A new oil platform will impact these whales in several ways. First, will come the deafening noises of seismic surveys, which Sakhalin Energy will use to determine the exact location for the platform. These surveys are so loud that they may actually drive the whales away from the area, which is perhaps their most important feeding and nursery site in the world. After the survey, will come the pervasive and near-constant sounds and disruptions associated with construction. Although not as loud as the survey, these noises may be disruptive enough to again force whales from the area. If they leave, we do not know where they will go.
And, of course, no one can deny the risk of an oil spill or well blow-out. Although these waters are shallower than the site of last summer’s devastating oil spill, Sakhalin Island is much, much more remote than the Gulf of Mexico. How long would it take for help to arrive? How long before a free-flowing spill is staunched? And, in these significantly colder waters, how much longer will it take for the oil to break down and disperse? On top of all that there is no method of cleaning up a spill in an ice covered body of water and that's exactly how Piltun lagoon is for much of the harsh winter months.
On top of all these environmental risks is this: Sakhalin Energy has already acknowledged that advances in drilling technology eliminates their need for a third platform in the area. They readily admit that having two platforms rather than three, “significantly reduces the potential for environmental impact”. Finally, Sakhalin Energy’s own studies of the area have already determined that the proposed site for the third platform is unsuitable for development, because the seabed is composed of unstable clay and lies within an earthquake-prone area.
With all these negatives, why is Sakhalin Energy proposing a new oil platform here? It is a waste of money, and a danger to the environment.