Russian Environmentalists Seeking Sakhalin Drilling Ban

A Moscow court will hear a lawsuit in April filed by Russian environmental groups seeking to ban oil and gas projects off Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East. The groups claim that the Sakhalin projects endanger rare gray whale colonies in the region.

If successful, the lawsuit could lead to the closures of the Sakhalin 1 and Sakhalin 2 offshore projects, led by ExxonMobil and Shell, respectively. The two projects could eventually become the largest foreign investments in Russia, with investment planned to reach more than $20 billion.

Fourteen Russian environmental and social groups named the Russian government and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources as defendants in the suit. Exxon Neftegas Limited, a Russian subsidiary of ExxonMobil and in charge of the Sakhalin 1 project, and Sakhalin Energy, a consortium 55% owned by Shell that is developing the Sakhalin 2 natural gas project, are listed as third parties in the lawsuit. Russian and international environmental groups have waged a campaign against the energy projects off Sakhalin for years, arguing the oil companies have used loopholes in Russian legislation on protecting the colonies of gray whales breeding in the area. The companies have denied the allegations, saying that they went beyond international standards on protecting the whales.

Last September, Exxon was forced to halt seismic surveys amid pressure from the World Wildlife Fund and other groups. Exxon officials in Moscow couldn't be reached immediately for comment. "To my knowledge (Sakhalin Energy) hasn't received any official letter about the lawsuit," said Maxim Shoob, a spokesman of Royal Dutch/Shell in Moscow. Sakhalin Energy officials couldn't be immediately reached for comment.