Score one for the whales—at least a small one. Sakhalin Energy, a consortium that includes Shell, agreed not to engage in seismic exploration for oil and gas off Sakhalin Island in Russian waters this year. Is this a sign that Russia is playing by the rules?
The move came after seeing evidence provided by a panel of scientists set up to monitor the area that the noise from such activity harms the breeding of grey whales, a critically endangered species that could be down to as few at 35 breeding females.
Certainly humans have been no great friend to whales through the years, whether it's hunting them, polluting their environments or using them as characters in hokey Star Trek movies . But it seems that only in recent decades has the environmental groups' fight moved more from the classic example of preventing whale hunting (which still happens in a few countries) to the more modern concern of investigating the harm we could be doing to marine life through our methods for exploring the deep.
Sonar, for searching the ocean for vessels or to measure the depth of the sea floor, or the the drilling that energy companies do to extract undersea deposits of oil and gas, can wreak serious havoc on the great aquatic mammals. In short, humans make a lot of noise in the ocean, and whales aren't used to it.
One such problem came to a head last November, when a case involving whales and the U.S. Navy reached all the way to the Supreme Court. Despite evidence that the intense sound waves from sonar can cause temporary hearing loss and odd behavior in whales, the majority of the justices ruled that the military's need to train for realistic combat overrode the possible harm to marine life, and refused to enact restrictions on sonar use in these simulations. Unfortunately, the court concluded, there's just no technology out there that's even close to being as effective as sonar at locating enemy vessels in the sea, and war preparedness trumps the lives of a few sea creatures.
Disputes between the military and environmental groups aren't likely to disappear despite having reached the high court, and neither will the conversation between conservation groups like the World Wildlife Federation and undersea oil explorers like Sahkalin. As the BBC report says, companies like BP and Exxon are still planning to do seismic work in Russian waters, and the WWF's Wendy Elliott told Big Think that both of those companies have outright refused to work with the scientific monitoring panel. The worst part of that, Elliott says, is that it creates a competitive disadvantage for groups like Sakhalin, which show some willingness to cooperate. "They are heeding the panel's advice," she says, "while BP and Exxon are just going ahead."
Gaining an environmentally-consious agreement from one company is fine, but protecting a critically endangered species will take much more than that. As The Economist pointed out earlier this month, the situation is more complex than big bad oil companies coming to devastate the sea, citing the fact that the Sakhalin group has supported or provided a lot of the research that has allowed conservationists to learn more about the whales' situation. Good for Sakhalin; but at the same time, it shouldn't be left to the company's altruism to see that wildlife gets adequate consideration as offshore energy development expands. A real plan probably won't come, Elliott says, until the Russian government stops simply attending the scientific panel's meetings and actually makes companies report their environmental impacts.