Sakhalin oil project impact on rare whales scrutinized

A Swiss-based conservation group will begin a study on how an oil-and-gas project off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East will affect the habitat of highly endangered whales.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) will conduct the independent review of the development project, called Sakhalin 2, in response to widespread concern about the project’s environmental impact on populations of highly endangered western gray whales and related key elements of biodiversity, the IUCN members said Tuesday.

There are estimated to be only 100 western gray whales in the Northwestern Pacific, IUCN said.

The results of the IUCN study might affect the future of the project. IUCN members include governments as well as nongovernmental organizations.

Sakhalin Energy Investment Co., a consortium led by oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell Group and including Japanese trading houses Mitsubishi Corp. and Mitsui & Co., has decided to postpone part of the project until the study yields results, the members said.

The Sakhalin 2 project, launched in 1986, began commercial oil production under the first phase in 1999. Natural gas output is planned for 2006.

IUCN said the second phase of the Sakhalin 2 project has come under public scrutiny for its potential threat to the survival of western gray whales.

The project consists of the development of two offshore platforms linked to the shore by pipelines. These would be located close to the summer feeding grounds of the whales.