Russia: Sakhalin Island Indigenous Communities Pressure Oil Giants
April 7, 2005 | No Comments
by Tracy Kirkland
In response to plans for a major oil and gas pipeline, members of several Sakhalin Island indigenous communities began a blockade at the entrance to a work site at Chayvo Bay on January 21, 2005. Protestors began with a ritual bonfire to banish malevolent spirits and a rally to garner support for their demands that Royal Dutch/Shell and Exxon-Mobil reduce harmful effects of the project.
The coastal waters that surround the Russian island of Sakhalin, just north of Japan, are home to one of the most pristine marine environments in the Pacific. Sakhalin’s magnificent coastal habitat hosts 25 marine mammal species, including the critically endangered western gray whale. It is rich with fish, including crab, herring and cod, and supports one of the last remaining healthy, wild salmon fisheries in the world. More than 6,000 rivers, streams and wetlands on the island sustain a rich diversity of life and provide breeding and migratory grounds for many bird species, including the Steller’s sea eagle.
Sakhalin also is home to indigenous communities that have thrived on these abundant marine resources for more than 10,000 years. Communities on Sakhalin today, including the Nivkh, Uilta, and Evenki, are direct descendents of Neolithic inhabitants, and many practice a traditional subsistence economy based primarily on fishing.
Much of Sakhalin’s environmental and cultural heritage is threatened by one of the largest integrated oil and gas projects ever undertaken. The Sakhalin II project will tap the nearly 13 billion barrels of oil beneath Sakhalin’s frigid coastal waters. The Sakhalin Energy Investment Corporation (SEIC) a conglomerate of Royal Dutch/Shell, Mitsubishi and Mitsui, is building the pipeline to transport crude oil and natural gas from beneath the Sea of Okhotsk, and it will extend approximately 800 km overland, crossing Sakhalin from north to south.
Sakhalin II has raised many environmental and social concerns due to inadequate environmental impact assessments and the use of outmoded technologies that would not be permitted in the United States. Proposed off-shore platforms and the undersea pipeline will disturb the western gray whales’ only known feeding ground. Of 100 remaining western gray whales, only an estimated 20 are females capable of calving.
Scientists monitoring the whales have recently become alarmed at the whales’ thin and undernourished appearance, which they attribute to the drilling activities of Sakhalin II. Environmentalists and scientists have urged Shell to construct offshore oil platforms 12 miles from Sakhalin’s northeast shore in the Sea of Okhotsk to reduce impact on whales, and lawsuits against SEIC demand a halt to Sakhalin II under Russian laws that protect endangered species.
The Sakhalin II project threatens wild salmon runs and stream and wetland habitat as the pipeline is trenched along streambeds and across sensitive lands. The pipeline will cross approximately 1,100 brooks, streams and rivers, half of which are critical salmon spawning streams that have been recommended for the highest category of protection.
Sakhalin is known for its seismic activity, and earthquakes of 8.0 are not uncommon. Plans call for the pipeline to cross at least 24 active fault lines, which may result in oil and gas leaks that will harm lands and waters and contaminate drinking water. Local grassroots organizations and Russian NGOs, such as Sakhalin Environment Watch, have demanded that the methods and standards of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which is built on earthquake resistant shocks, be implemented to protect river ecosystems in the event of an earthquake. SEIC has not agreed to meet these standards.
Sakhalin is also known for its severe climate, with frequent typhoons and waters that are iced over for nearly half the year, making oil spills yet another concern. In fact, typhoon-like conditions are what caused a Shell-contracted dredging vessel to run aground, spilling 200-tons of oil and gas off the coast of Sakhalin on September 8, 2004. Sakhalin Environment Watch estimated that the spill contaminated nearly five kilometers of coastline, including an area just 300 meters from homes. Concerned citizens and environmental groups criticized SEIC’s oil spill response, which violated Russian regulations that require spill response equipment to be on site within four hours of a spill. Oil spills during the winter would be even more catastrophic, since drift ice would make cleaning up spills nearly impossible.
The economic and social effects of Sakhalin II are far-reaching because the people of Sakhalin are so dependent on commercial and subsistence fishing. Already many communities have seen decline in local fisheries. Large numbers of dead herring were found northeast of the island, a problem never observed prior to recent oil and gas development. Current plans call for dumping nearly one million tons of soil into Aniva Bay, a key fishery, and environmentalists and community members have pushed for a change in location, from Aniva Bay to the deep waters of the Okhotsk Sea.
SEIC has attempted to prohibit salmon fishing in the waters near the construction site in Sakhalin’s Aniva Bay. Outraged local fishermen responded with a road blockade in hopes of persuading SEIC representatives to participate in talks. Unfortunately, company representatives failed to appear to meet the striking fishermen, and fishermen reported that SEIC ships tore the main fishing net at the beginning of the fishing season.
Indigenous groups recently organized protests demanding better assessment of the environmental and social impacts of Sakhalin II and to demand just compensation for indigenous communities. This is the first time indigenous people and local grassroots organizations in Sakhalin have created a united front. For ongoing information about these efforts, please see Pacific Environment’s Sakhalin news page.
Greengrants has supported the efforts of the Sakhalin people since 2001. Grants have been used to raise public awareness about natural gas and oil development projects and the negative ecological effects of logging. Grants also have allowed student environmental groups to get training in land protection, and have helped indigenous communities increase their autonomy and preserve traditional ways of life.