Shell to reroute pipelines in Russian Far East oil project over gray whale fears

The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos. said Wednesday it would reroute planned pipelines at its oil and gas project off the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin, bowing to the demands of environmentalists who said the pipelines passed too close to the feeding grounds of the endangered gray whale.

Shell, which leads the Sakhalin Energy Consortium in developing the hydrocarbon-rich fields, said it would move pipelines that are to join two production offshore platforms to the shore 20 kilometers (12 miles) south.

The company said it had halted pipeline-laying activities at the Piltun-Astokhskoye field last April after its own research showed that work could harm the whales.

Environmentalists have argued that the grey whales could be killed in collisions with vessels, and their habitat could be harmed by oil contamination and loud noises. The gray whale population off Sakhalin has been reduced to about 100 _ largely due to commercial whaling _ and the species is now listed by Swiss-based World Conservation Union as "critically endangered."

"There are still concerns, especially as this routing _ it does avoid the whale feeding areas quite significantly _ but because it's a much longer route, it obviously increases the risk of spillage once the pipeline is in operation," said John Kidd of the Swiss-based organization.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Sakhalin Energy CEO Ian Craig said the cost of the new route "was not a significant issue," and noted that the company was on track to begin deliveries of liquefied natural gas from the fields in 2007.

However, pending approval for the route from the Russian government was more of a concern, Craig said.

"We've been very encouraged with discussions that we've had with one of the key ministries, who have been very supportive and indicated they're going to do everything they can to expedite that approval process," he said.

In February, the Sakhalin Energy consortium, which also includes Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi companies, released the results of a 131-page scientific report it commissioned from IUCN, which highlighted the danger posed to the whales and proposed three possible alternative routes at the Piltun-Astokhskoye field pipelines.

Some of Russia's largest oil and gas fields are located off shore of Sakhalin Island, which is over 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) east of Moscow and some 700 kilometers (430 miles) north of Tokyo. Many multinational oil companies are currently working to tap the reserves.

Many indigenous groups and environmentalists, however, say the massive drilling projects will harm the island's fragile maritime environment and disrupt traditional culture of the island's native inhabitants. In January, protesters blockaded construction sites belonging to Shell and Exxon Mobil Corp.

ALEX NICHOLSON Associated Press Writer

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