£6bn pipeline threatens endangered whale

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A massive oil and gas drilling project planned by Shell off the eastern coast of Russia could lead to the extinction of the Western Pacific grey whale, a report has warned.

A massive oil and gas drilling project planned by Shell off the eastern coast of Russia could lead to the extinction of the Western Pacific grey whale, a report has warned.

The study, commissioned by the oil company itself, recommended operations be halted in the oil and gas fields off the north-eastern coast of Sakhalin Island. The project, which will cost $12bn (£6.4bn), is thought to be the biggest private-sector energy scheme in the world.

A consortium led by Shell is seeking some $5bn of public cash to help fund the initiative, including money from the British taxpayer. The Department of Trade and Industry's export credit guarantee scheme and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is based in London and partly funded by the UK government, are among leading potential backers of the project. The independent report, by the highly respected IUCN-World Conservation Union, said there were only about 100 western grey whales left, leaving the species "on the edge of survival".

The study said: "It is particularly unfortunate the only known foraging grounds for the population lie along the north-eastern coast of Sakhalin Island, where existing and planned large-scale offshore oil and gas activities pose potentially catastrophic threats to the population."

Shell insisted yesterday the project could go ahead, with modifications but it was unclear whether the EBRD and the DTI would still fund it.

Nick Rau, of Friends of the Earth, said: "We don't believe public money should be funding a project that might lead to extinction of the western grey whale. We would also argue no company has the right to eliminate a species - at what price should projects like this be allowed to go ahead?"

Both the EBRD and the DTI said they would study the report before deciding whether to back the project. The report said there were only 23 reproductively active females left, so the loss of just one additional female per year "would be sufficient to drive the population towards extinction".

The IUCN, based in Geneva, advised: "The most precautionary approach would be to suspend present operations and delay further development."

There is already one oil platform in the sea off Sakhalin. Shell's project, known as Sakhalin II, would massively increase the scale of oil and gas production in the region. Of particular concern to environmentalists is the company's plan to lay an underwater pipeline from offshore drilling platforms to Sakhalin Island, where fuel can be piped to the south of the island. Of the three possible routes proposed by Shell, one passes straight through the only known breeding ground of the whale.

Friends of the Earth said Shell must site its drilling platform much further offshore than planned. It added it was not satisfied any of the proposed pipeline routes - each passing under the sea bed - would not harm the whales.

Ian Craig, chief executive of the Shell-led Sakhalin Energy consortium, said: "We welcome the many detailed recommendations and suggestions for further mitigation measures by the [IUCN] panel, and we will be studying these in detail to see how we can incorporate them in our operations."

IUCN said the project posed risks from noise pollution - to which whales are particularly sensitive - collisions between the mammals and ships during the construction, oil spills, and disturbance of the sea bed.

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