Chekhov's hell Sakhalin faces ravages of oil majors

Published: Tuesday 15 April 2008

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When the writer Anton Chekhov described Sakhalin as a hellish place, he could have scarcely anticipated the ravages wrought by big oil companies on this 78,000 sq km island. Sakhalin was a Russian penal colony then and the writer perhaps had little idea of its environmental importance. But oil and gas exploration is threatening to turn the island into the forbidding place Chekhov wrote of in 1890. The exploration that began in the early 1990s has affected the local environment, fishing resources, and indigenous peoples' traditional way of life.

Sakhalin I is one of the largest oil and gas development projects on the island. The multinational Exxon and Cedco, a Japanese company, are the project's largest shareholders with 30 per cent shares each. The Russian government-owned Rosneft and India's Oil and Natural Gas Company have a 20 per cent holding each.The infrastructure for the project was built by Exxon between 2001 and 2006; this included offshore and onshore drill sites in and near Chaivo Bay, an offshore platform, an onshore processing facility on Chaivo Bay, a pipeline across Sakhalin Island to the mainland and an export terminal in the Khabarovsk region. This infrastructure is now operational.

Exxon is now planning to build two offshore drill sites at Piltun Spit on the northeast shore of the island. It also plans to lay a pipeline through Piltun Bay to connect the offshore sites to its processing facility on Chaivo Bay. This pipeline will devastate the local environment and affect livelihood of indigenous communities. The planned wintertime trench burial of the pipeline will suffocate the rich marine plant and animal species that grow in the bay's waters and support the critically endangered western gray whales. The feeding grounds of the whales are located in open water directly outside the bay. Barely 130 western grey whales remain and a pipeline through the Piltun Bay could exterminate the creatures.

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The new Sakhalin I pipeline will cross traditional summer reindeer pastures and calving grounds. The infrastructure built at Chaivo Bay has already done enormous damage to the reindeer pastures and calving grounds. From 2001 to 2006 reindeer herds have shrunk by about 40 per cent due to a rising number of miscarriages and a falling birth rate. If the Piltun pipeline is built through reindeer pastures and calving grounds, herds will be decimated, depriving the local Uilta and Evenki communities of their livelihoods.

Sakhalin Environment Watch, a local environmental ngo, is working with indigenous groups, government and business representatives, and international partners such as Pacific Environment to stall such devastation. The coalition proposes that the project's co-owners, including ongc, reroute the pipeline around Piltun Bay along an already-developed transportation corridor. It also proposes that the project's owners carry out construction in the winter months to avoid any disturbance to the summer reindeer feeding and calving grounds. The coalition is not trying to stop the Sakhalin I project. It believes that local environment and indigenous communities must be protected during both the construction and operation phases of the new pipeline.

It is in the best interest of the co-owners of the project, including ongc, to safeguard their energy security by addressing environmental issues associated with Stage Two of the Sakhalin I project before construction begins.

Lauren Allan-Vail is an activist with the pressure group Pacific Environment, San Francisco, USA

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