'Clever rascals': blast for Shell on project near whale grounds

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The chairman of an eminent scientific panel appointed to oversee Shell's controversial gas development in the far-eastern Russian island of Sakhalin has resigned, accusing the oil giant of being "clever, stubborn rascals".

The embattled company will return to court in Sakhalin tomorrow as environmental campaigners mount a last-ditch effort to stop the Anglo-Dutch giant from completing the world's most expensive oil and gas project.

Shell is facing a mounting international backlash against its £11bn plans to exploit the vast energy reserves off the coast of this former top secret Soviet military base north of Japan. It has already been forced to re-route oil pipelines that threatened to disrupt the breeding grounds of the critically endangered western grey whale, and has suspended other works.

But attempts by Shell to win over environmental opinion appear to have backfired after the resignation of a leading independent scientist appointed to oversee the development.

In his resignation letter to the chief executive of Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, Professor Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska marine advisory programme urged other members of the scientific panel to "opt out of this project", describing Shell as "clever, stubborn rascals".

He said: "When Shell becomes interested in being fully engaged partners in a sustainable world - in action, not just word - then I'd be glad to help them along this path. But it is clear that they aren't there yet."

Shell is also accused of ignoring a Russian court finding that it violated citizens' rights during the early construction phase. And despite achieving some public relations success following the concessions over the whales, the company has prompted a further outcry after refusing to change the location of an offshore platform close to the breeding ground.

Campaigners say this could still have an impact on the 100-strong population of one of the rarest and least understood species of marine mammal.

If the court in the capital Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk finds against Shell, it could be forced to abandon the main export pier from which it plans to unload millions of tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the massive plant it is building in the south of the island at Aniva Bay.

Shell hopes eventually to provide 10 per cent of Japan's gas requirements. Locals say the jetty and the construction work have resulted in a collapse in fish and shellfish stocks in the bay.

Shell, the leading partner in the project's operating company, Sakhalin Energy Investment, last month swapped a major stake with the Russian company Gazprom. But it has already overseen a 100 per cent overrun in the budget to $20bn (£11bn), with completion a year behind schedule.

To compound matters, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is yet to approve guarantees vital to the completion of the second phase of the project. It is sending a team to the island this month to assess the environmental impact.

But campaigners led by Dmitry Lisitsyn of Sakhalin Environment Watch will show them new evidence that important salmon rivers are being destroyed along the pipeline route.

A Shell spokeswoman said: "Sakhalin Energy secured a state environmental expertise review in connection with the jetty for construction, and following this positive decision, all appropriate approvals and permits were obtained. We cannot comment further on the case given that the issue is sub judice."