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Shell Project May Doom Western Gray Whale to Extinction

WASHINGTON - World Wildlife Fund called upon Royal Dutch Shell Wednesday to abide by the recommendations of an independent panel of renowned whale experts, which has warned that oil and gas activities in Russia's Far East may drive the critically endangered western gray whale into extinction.

The panel, set up by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), concluded that existing and planned large-scale offshore oil and gas development off the northeast coast of Sakhalin Island poses "potentially catastrophic threats" to the western gray whale, whose numbers have plummeted to fewer than 100. Along with two Japanese corporations, Mitsui and Mitsubishi, Shell plans to build a pipeline through the whales' sole feeding grounds.

The independent panel of scientific experts found that the pipeline's construction would physically damage the feeding grounds, subject the whales to noise and other stressful disturbances and increase the risk of ship strikes. Once the pipeline is built, the whales would also face the further risk of oil spills and gas releases. Given the precarious state of the population-the panel said that the annual death of just one of the 23 remaining reproductive females could drive the whales into extinction -- these risks are unacceptably high.

"The recommendations of the world's most respected whale scientists are clear and unequivocal," said William Eichbaum, WWF's Vice President for Endangered Spaces. "If Shell routes this pipeline right through the heart of the whales' feeding grounds, it is potentially condemning them to extinction. We must not let an offshore oil platform become the tombstone of the western gray whale."

The panel criticized the Shell-led consortium's proposed safeguards as inadequate, unspecific and highly "questionable," and recommended the company "suspend operations" in the area, which is also home to a wealth of other rare and endangered species such as Stellar sea lions, sea eagles, seals and vast colonies of seabirds.

Endorsing that recommendation, WWF, along with more than 50 other conservation and environmental groups, is also urging a bank consortium led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to withhold funds from the oil and gas development. The EBRD agreed last year that an environmental impact assessment conducted for the project had been inadequate.

"WWF is not against oil and gas development per se, but this project both poses unacceptably high environmental risks and brings too little economic benefit to the people of the region," said Igor Chestin, director of WWF-Russia. "Investors should think carefully about backing a project that puts shareholder value above human welfare and the survival of an endangered species."