Sakhalin oil spill risk unacceptable – NGO

Sea ice could render any clean up operations ineffective for six months of the year at Shell's Sakhalin oil operation, according to a new report published by conservation charity WWF.

The project on the remote Russian island of Sakhalin has angered environmentalists and locals alike as it involves piping oil through the last remaining feeding ground of the endangered western gray whale.

Now the WWF is calling on the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to demand effective environmental protection measures for oil spills from Shell or decline funding to the Sakhalin project.

The NGO’s report released concludes that the sea ice conditions around Shell’s Sakhalin operation, which can dominate for more than six months of the year, would mean that the company would not be able to respond to a major oil spill for half of the year or longer.

Traditional oil spill response methods are rendered impotent because of the predominant sea ice and prevailing weather conditions.

“It is shocking to see that in the rush to develop new oil and gas supplies Shell is gambling with the environment,” said Robert Napier, WWF chief executive.

“This is the worst place on earth to have to respond to an oil spill. Even with the latest technology and perfect weather conditions it would be impossible to clean up oil spills for 50 per cent of the time.

“During summer, wave height and wind conditions can overwhelm response technologies. In winter, the combination of dynamic sea ice, low visibility, and cold temperatures can shut down most large-scale response systems.”

In a briefing paper Shell proposes to use natural openings, called polynyas, in the sea ice to burn off any oil spills. However according to WWF these ice clearings are a vital focal area for marine life from plankton to marine mammals.

“The EBRD can not agree to fund this project if they are serious about their environmental values and want to maintain their credibility,” said Mr Napier.

“If they go ahead and fund Sakhalin their social and environmental reputation will be in tatters.”

James Leaton, WWF oil expert, predicted a one in four chance of a spill during the lifetime of the Sakhalin project.

“Oil spills this winter in Alaska and off northern Japan must act as a warning,” he said.

“Neither spill was quickly detected and neither has been cleared up. The one off Japan has killed thousands of birds – including some endangered ones.

“The lack of sufficient technology to clean up a spill in icy conditions raises serious questions over Shell’s and other companies’ ambitions in the Arctic.”

Sam Bond

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