Russian Roulette

The Western Pacific gray whale, once thought extinct, clings to life in a remote Siberian sea. Biologists fear their research is serving as cover for massive oil drilling that could wipe out this lost tribe once and for all.

When pressed on the Pil'tun biologists' complaints that research, limited as it is, is being censored, Royal becomes angry.

"Quite frankly, the people who are working there are properly financed by us. When they have complaints of that nature, they should bring it to us. They shouldn't feed it to a newspaper reporter. I don't feel it is good information. I would have to hear that direct from them before commenting on it."

Sakhalin Energy is taking the official position that the oil development has had no impact on the whales -- despite the scientists' data from the first two years showing possible behavior changes from noise and, more recently, the appearance of "skinny" whales.

The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.
Reprinted with permission from Sakhalin
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.
Reprinted with permission from Sakhalin
The Molikpaq oil platform's base is reinforced to protect it from winter ice packs.

"There is no evidence that our operations have had any effect on the gray whales that summer near Pil'tun," states Sakhalin Energy spokeswoman Yelena Uspenskaya.

She says whatever is causing the recent increase in malnourished Eastern Pacific gray whales may also be affecting the whales near Sakhalin.

But at least one of the joint-venture partners apparently is willing to listen to the scientists. Mitsubishi officials in New York say they were unaware of concerns raised by whale biologists until contacted by this reporter and will take the scientists seriously.

"There are very few gray whales. They are endangered. It is critical that nothing be done to harm them," says Mitsubishi executive vice president and legal counsel James E. Brumm. "I agree that certainly people need to study and know a lot more about them to make sure they are protected."

Mitsubishi is sensitive to complaints over the gray whale, having endured a massive worldwide environmental campaign that focused on perceived threats to the Eastern Pacific gray whale from a planned salt-evaporation plant Mitsubishi wanted to build in Mexico. The Mexican government last year canceled plans to build the salt plant.

Stephen Wechselblatt, Mitsubishi's vice president for public affairs, says there is no reason to skimp on research if it can help prevent the Western Pacific gray whale from going extinct.

The Pil'tun team estimates that $500,000 a year would pay for the proper baseline environmental studies to develop a habitat-protection plan.

"If it is a couple of hundred thousand dollars for fundamental research on a species that may become extinct, you gotta do the research," Wechselblatt says.

"It's the sort of the thing you need to do as a matter of course. I just want to make sure that will be done."

At least one of the three major international lending agencies funding Sakhalin Energy is also expressing concern over the company's statements on a whale-protection plan.

Sakhalin Energy officials say the plan will remain secret once it is completed next year. "This document will be an internal document also containing commercial information, and we do not plan to make it a public document," says Sakhalin Energy spokeswoman Uspenskaya.

That secrecy took Liz Smith by surprise. She is the senior environmental official for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. She says the bank met with the company in early April to discuss the habitat-protection plan and talked specifically about "a wider circulation" of the draft document.

"This is of international interest, and there are quite a few people who would be interested in the results," she says. "It would surprise me if it was not [public]."

Just before press time, Uspenskaya sent an e-mail saying that even though the detailed study would not be released, "the public will be advised upon request about the scientific results obtained from this program."

A few blocks away from the Sakhalin Energy headquarters, Dimitri Lisitsyn and Natasha Barannikova direct operations of the island's only environmental group, Sakhalin Environment Watch.

On the second floor of an old apartment complex, the group's office is filled with plants and decorated with Greenpeace posters of whales and dolphins. Maps of Sakhalin line the wall. Two laptop computers and a desktop unit make up the heart of the command center.

The flat looks like something out of Greenwich Village circa 1970s, and so do its director, Lisitsyn, a geologist, and assistant, Barannikova, an economist specializing in energy developments. The group has four full-time employees and about 20 volunteers tracking the rapid destruction of Sakhalin's forests, rivers, fisheries, and now, its seas.

Called "The Watch" for short, the group is despised by the government -- "They hate us," says Lisitsyn -- and has found little public support for its campaign to protect the Western Pacific gray whales' habitat.

"Nobody is thinking about it," he says.

The reason is simple, Barannikova says.

"People are very poor. Life is so hard," she says. "They don't think about whales because it is too far from their real lives."

Lisitsyn predicts that perception will change, but only at a very high cost.

"The main reason people's minds will change will be from a huge oil spill," he says.

The group argues that Sakhalin is entitled to offshore oil-industry environmental standards no lower than those in Norway, Alaska, or the United Kingdom. So far, Lisitsyn says, those standards have not been met.

As with any offshore oil project, there is always the possibility of a massive oil spill. In this case, the risks appear higher than usual. Less than two months into operation, a spill at the Molikpaq dumped about 3,000 pounds of crude into the sea. Although the amount wasn't great, the spill attracted attention from fishermen and environmentalists worldwide.

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