Getting away with being nice.

This week Ker Than from National Geographic asked us for a critique on recommendations that came out of a study on the impacts of seismic surveys on Gray whales. The research was conducted by an “A Team” of scientists pulled together by Doug Nowacek and funded by Sakhalin Energy Investment Company. The work was comprehensive and some excellent guidelines were drawn up in the context of what could be done to mitigate for potential acoustic threats to the subject whales.

Grey whale diving © Vladimir Potanskiy / WWF-Russia

Grey whale diving © Vladimir Potanskiy / WWF-Russia

This opportunity came about because Sakhalin Energy plans on extracting oil and gas from an area that is critical habitat for the Western Pacific grey whale – a group of animals that has dwindled down to 140 individuals due to early whaling practices and recent habitat loss.

When the suggestion came up that the Russian energy industry was going into this area to extract fossil fuel many in the conservation sector were rightfully alarmed; and many were prepared to roll up their sleeves and take action against the project. But with the proposal to use this setting as a benchmark study for mitigation protocols many in the e-NGO community backed down.

While the guidelines document will prove useful, my cynical self has a raised eyebrow. Had Sakhalin Energy just proceeded with their plans they would have been met with a lot of resistance and global derision, costing tons of money, and causing delays or even the scuttling of the whole venture. By “doing the right thing” with the research project the camel’s nose is now well under the tent.

While the plan includes ongoing research to determine if there are any long-term impacts of the seismic surveys, what is only suggested in the research paper are the future impacts of developing and then operating the oil fields to get at the 150,000 barrels of oil a day and 10.6 million tons of liquefied natural gas a year. The fact that the surveys took place in the first place poses an almost-foregone conclusion that the Sakhalin offshore oil field will be developed.

This development will include the laying of hundreds of miles of pipe and cables, constant traffic from all manner of vessels; from tenders and lighters, to tankers and construction vessels. As this field is in shallow waters it will also include the construction of drilling and processing platforms, and the acoustic communications used to network all of the equipment and processes to a control center. And then there is the extraction (fracking), processing, and compression of the natural gas…

It was really nice that Sakhalin Energy funded some conservation efforts toward understanding the impacts of their surveys on the critically endangered Western Pacific grey whale. It was also politically expeditious and probably saved them a bundle in court fees and reputation management. It remains to be seen if the whales will survive to tell the tale.