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Gazprom-Shell Say Whales Safe; Environmentalists Wary

An OAO Gazprom and Royal Dutch Shell Plc joint venture said endangered whales were unaffected by loud noise from oil and gas construction work off the coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia. Environmental groups were unconvinced.

Construction activity has had "no discernable impact'' on the Western Gray Whale population and underwater noise levels remained within agreed parameters, the venture said in a statement today.

On July 6, it handed over two weeks worth of noise- monitoring and whale-sighting data to environmental groups, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature and International Fund for Animal Welfare, who raised concern that noise had displaced some whales during their summer feeding period.

"We have some indications that the noises are higher than those allowed,'' Igor Beliatski, an IFAW spokesman, said in a telephone interview from Moscow. "It may not be as harmless as they say. The situation may be critical for the whales.''

The $22 billion Sakhalin-2 project has been dogged by environmental controversy for its alleged impact on whales, salmon and soil erosion. Russian regulators had threatened to derail it on environmental grounds until state-run Gazprom bought a controlling stake in the project. The purchase was completed on April 18.

Friends of the Earth and WWF were among 15 environmental groups who wrote to Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., ABN Amro Holding NV and other lenders last month, urging them not to fund the project because its environmental record hasn't improved since Gazprom took over. The joint venture, Sakhalin Energy Investment Co., is owned by Gazprom, Shell, Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Corp.

Top Heavy

Sakhalin Energy completed installing the 28,000-ton top of an offshore production platform on July 5, in keeping with its plan to pipe gas to the southern end of the island and start Russia's first liquefied natural gas exports next year. The PA-B platform is as tall as a 30-story building, measured from the seafloor.

Whale scientists from the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel said in November that the population of this kind of whale was 122 in 2006, excluding calves, and that the revised estimate for 2004 was 114.

Sightings

Beliatski said independent observations by environmental groups from shoreline camps near the whale feeding area and from boats recently sighted two or three whales per day, compared with typical sightings of 10 to 20 a day last summer. The whales are dispersed over a feeding ground near Piltun Bay, where they fatten on food for winter migration. They are sometimes obscured by fog.

Strict noise limits for marine activities were established to minimize any effect on the whales and "to date there has not been any noise above these threshold levels this season,'' Doug Bell, Sakhalin Energy's corporate environmental manager, said in today's statement.

Gray Whales have been hunted to extinction in the Atlantic Ocean and the species now exists in two groups, on the eastern and western sides of the Pacific Ocean. Shell in 2005 changed the route of an offshore pipeline to avoid the Sakhalin feeding ground after pressure from environmental groups.

© Bloomberg

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