Shell changes oil pipe route to avoid endangered whales

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The Independent Online

The oil company Shell has abandoned a plan to route a multibillion-pound oil pipeline through a whale species' feeding ground following pressure from conservationists.

The news that Shell had re-routed the pipeline, which lies along the eastern shore of Russia's Sakhalin island, was welcomed by campaigners.

But Friends of the Earth said the proposed location of the drilling platform was too close to the feeding ground and would disrupt the western grey whales. The pressure group pointed out that Shell was seeking taxpayers' money to fund part of the scheme, through a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is financed by EU governments.

Nick Rau, of Friends of the Earth, said: "Gordon Brown, as a governor of the EBRD, should use his influence to stop this loan to the oil industry. Without it, this environmentally damaging project might not go ahead."

Last month, an independent report by the highly respected IUCN-World Conservation Union, commissioned by Shell, said there were only about 100 western grey whales left, leaving the species "on the edge of survival". Dr Randall Reeves, a whale specialist who chaired that reporting panel, told The Independent that, even with the modifications made to the project by Shell, "there remains the risk that something catastrophic will happen" to the whale population.

He said it was "important to acknowledge" the benefits from the re-routing of the pipeline but added that even the new path was "not totally without risk". On the location of the drilling platform, he said that the further it was located from the feeding ground, the better it was for the whales.

Dr Reeves' panel highlighted the dangers to the whales from oil spillages, collisions with ships, disturbance of the sea bed and sound pollution - to which the animals are particularly sensitive.

The whale specialist said it was important that other oil companies operating in the area, which include BP and America's Exxon, also took account of the impact of oil production on the whale population.

Ian Craig, the chief executive of Shell's venture in the area, said he was "completely convinced" that the project would not now harm the whales. He said it was "not practical" to change the location of the new drilling platform, for safety and efficiency reasons.

He said that there was an existing platform from an earlier phase of the project that had been in use from 1999 and had had "no impact" on the whales. "The most precautionary approach is to do nothing but we have to take a sensible judgement about whether the risks are acceptable," Mr Craig said.

Shell announced yesterday that the pipeline taking oil from the platform to the shore of Sakhalin island would be laid 13 miles south of its original route. The company said the new platform would be 4.5 miles from the whales' feeding grounds, as originally planned. Shell said that between 1997 and the end of this year, it would have spent $7m (£3.7m) on studying the whales. The project, Sakhalin II, is the biggest oil and gas project ever undertaken. It will deliver Shell and its partners up to $45bn (£24bn) in revenues.

The huge reserves of oil under the sea bed off Sakhalin are considered of great strategic importance by Russia. Moscow has indicated that it would go ahead with extracting the oil, with or without Shell.