Britain ignored risk of whale extinction in rush for oil and gas
Documents that government fought for three years to keep secret reveal warnings of devastation to wildlife
Britain agreed to bankroll controversial drilling for oil and gas, despite a warning from its own officials of the "potentially devastating effects" on a critically endangered species of whale. The decision to flout their own experts' advice is revealed in deeply embarrassing documents the Government fought for three years to keep secret.
The documents – finally released last week under the Freedom of Information Act after a High Court ruling – warn that the drilling, off Sakhalin Island in the far east of Russia, could cause the extinction of one of the world's most vulnerable populations of the marine mammals.
Nevertheless, the Government's powerful export credits and guarantees department (ECGD), which provides support to the exports industry, agreed to help back the $20bn (£10bn) project by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, in which Shell has a major share.
The project, now nearing completion, is to exploit a "world-class oil and gas province" off the island, which is so remote that the playwright Anton Chekhov, who visited it in 1893, called it "the end of the world".
The same waters are the only known feeding ground for western grey whales. Only about 120 of them survive and they are listed as "critically endangered". Scientists say the death of just one of the breeding females each year for three years would be enough to lead to the species' extinction.
Yet in March 2004, the ECGD wrote to the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company to say it had approved conditional support for several UK contracts for the project. This flew in the face of warnings from both the Foreign Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The contracts were revealed only after the High Court last month ordered the ECGD to release them – although Friends of the Earth formally requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act three years ago.
The documents show that, on 14 March 2003, Defra flagged "substantial concerns about this project". It said it had "significant worries about the possible impacts" on the endangered species, and that "any losses are likely to be significant to its future", adding it was "also concerned about the longer-term impacts on this population of disturbances caused by mining and explosions, or of oil spills".
The document states that oil spills were "potentially devastating" to the local environment, and logged "significant concerns" that a pipeline from the project could "interfere" with salmon stocks. It also questioned whether there were "adequate measures" for waste disposal.
It did note that the project could have some benefit in combating global warming because it would supply gas to a region that depends on more polluting coal, but concluded: "Our preliminary view is that the potentially devastating effects of this project on the local environment, and in particular on an endangered population of whales and biodiversity in a sparsely populated region are not compensated for by the positive effect of this project on the global climate."
The Foreign Office also said that "the potential negative environmental impacts, in particular of oil spills and on the western grey whale population, may be significant".
Regardless of such concerns, the Department of Trade and Industry, predecessor to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, said at the time it had "no concerns at this stage".
Two environmental groups – WWF and The Corner House – took the ECGD's decision to judicial review and last month the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company withdrew its request for backing.
Yesterday, Phil Michaels, head of legal for Friends of the Earth, said: "It is shameful ECGD should even consider supporting such a project and even more so that it should keep official warnings of the consequences secret for so long."
Humans are a 'plague on Earth': Sir David Attenborough warns that negative effects of population growth will come home to roost
Greenland’s dark snow may start global warming ‘feedback loop’
Cornwall hotter than California? British sea temperatures hit all-time high
Climate change march: Investors pledge to take their money out of firms blamed for climate change
Climate change means rate of growth of trees has gone up by 77%
- 1 Rihanna 'nude photos' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
- 3 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 5 Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...
£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...
£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...
£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...