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.

Sakhalin Environment Watch, with the help of funding from Pacific Environment, brought in three oil-spill-prevention experts to review Sakhalin Energy's offshore oil-spill contingency plans. The assessment concluded that the protections in place were inadequate.

The three men who wrote it -- Dan Lawn, Rich Steiner, and Jonathan Wills -- have extensive backgrounds in the oil industry.

Lawn, of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, works for the Alaska State Department of Environmental Conservation and was the first state official aboard the Exxon Valdezthe night it ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989.

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.

Steiner is a former commercial fisherman who responded to the Valdez spill and is now a professor in the Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska.

Wills, an environmental consultant from the Shetland Islands, has written extensively on oil-field development in the North Sea for the last 20 years and monitored cleanup of major oil spills from the Esso Bernicia in 1978 and the Braer in 1993.

Their 48-page report concluded that Sakhalin Energy was failing to use the best available technology to respond to a possible oil spill. They said the Russian government needs improved laws to protect its resources, including requiring double-hulled tankers and greater financial liability for companies in the event of a spill.

"We have found serious environmental concerns about how the development is proceeding," the authors stated in the October 1999 report.

The primary problems are at the Molikpaq, the oil-production rig about 20 kilometers southeast of the Pil'tun lighthouse and the entrance into the critical Pil'tun Lagoon.

The Molikpaq is an ice-resistant structure built for the Canadian Beaufort Sea but mothballed in 1990. In 1995, Sakhalin Energy towed the structure more than 3,000 miles and had it overhauled in South Korea. The rig operates in 30 meters of water and has been reinforced to protect it from harsh storms and ice flows.

The Molikpaq pumps oil from beneath the sea floor and transfers it via a 2-kilometer-long flexible hose to a nearby 140,000-ton storage tanker. The double-hulled storage tanker is temporarily anchored to the sea floor, but must be able to leave the area when the winter ice forms. The oil is transferred through another flexible hose to 80,000-ton shuttle tankers.

The weather on the Sea of Okhotsk changes quickly, and powerful storms with dangerous winds, severe waves, icing of vessels, intense snowfalls, and poor visibility can occur. A sudden storm in September 1999 caused the connection between the Molikpaq and the storage tanker to snap, spilling about 1.5 tons of oil into the sea. Sakhalin Energy's emergency response vessel Agat scooped up less than 10 percent of the slick. The company was fined $17,710.

Wills says the spill raised serious questions about what would happen if a shuttle or storage tanker broke loose. High winds and strong seas could leave as little as three hours before a disabled tanker could run aground. If oil entered the lagoons, it could do incalculable damage to fish spawning grounds, wildfowl habitat, and local commercial and subsistence enterprises, he said in a journal article last summer.

"What they are doing at present is dirty, uneconomic, and potentially disastrous," Wills says.

Sakhalin Energy's Dennis Royal acknowledges that a spill that moved onshore in the lagoons could be catastrophic, but he emphasizes the company is taking precautions to minimize any spill.

"We think we have a pretty good oil-spill response set up there," Royal says.

"We got the equipment, we got the boats, we got the booms. We have got the personnel, which is the most important thing."

Nevertheless, Royal appears willing to sacrifice the beaches in the event of a major spill, and implies the company will focus on protecting the entrances to the lagoons.

"The lagoons are the most sensitive area along the coastline," he says. "The rest of the coastline is very sandy shore and relatively environmentally inactive."

Royal says oil coming up on a sandy beach "usually doesn't do much damage."

"It's a mess, it looks horrible, but you can clean it up," he says. "So we concentrated on the entrances to the lagoon as far as protection is concerned."

Whether the lagoon protection measures would work is in doubt. Oil-spill response equipment will be difficult to deliver to Pil'tun and other coastal lagoons because of the near complete lack of roads.

Wills says the company's equipment is insufficient "to mount more than an initial defense of a single lagoon entrance."

In the event of an oil spill that heads toward shore, Sakhalin Energy's first line of defense will be the use of dispersant chemicals that generally cause the oil to break up and often sink to the sea floor. That would damage the whales' benthic food supply.

"Using dispersants, at least in that area, wouldn't be a good idea," says marine biologist Brownell.

Sakhalin Energy admits there is some risk, particularly since the whales tend to feed in shallow water within five kilometers of shore. "There could be more potential impact to benthic communities when you are in shallower water," says John Coil, Sakhalin's environmental consultant.

Despite the inherent dangers of offshore oil production, Sakhalin Energy apparently is promoting the Molikpaq as a benefit to the local marine environment.

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