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WWF: Russian Oil Platform Construction Disrupted Feeding by Rare Western Pacific Grey Whales

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OSLO, Norway -- Construction of an oil platform in a Shell-led project off Eastern Russia disrupted feeding by rare Western Pacific grey whales in recent months, two environmental lobby groups said on Wednesday.

The WWF conservation organisation and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said the tiny remaining population of about 100 grey whales was apparently shunning feeding grounds near the PA-B platform during construction in July-September.

"Shell has failed to meet even its own environmental standards on its projects," Paul Steele, WWF international's chief executive, said in a statement. The groups urged Shell to suspend offshore activities in the area pending further study.

They also called on the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to withhold financing for the Shell-led Sakhalin II natural gas and oil project, comprising three offshore platforms, an onshore terminal and other facilities.

"We urge the bank to decline financing until Shell properly faces up to its responsibilities," Steele said.

Shell says it is working to safeguard the endangered cetaceans. Shell-led Sakhalin Energy, running the $10 billion project, agreed in May for instance to reroute offshore pipelines to help protect the whales.

"There is no evidence to suggest the population is currently in decline, or that Sakhalin Energy's operations are having a negative impact on the whales," the company says on its website.

And Sakhalin Energy says it has spent about $7 million on Western grey whale research in 1997-2005.

The WWF and IFAW said observations of low numbers of whales near the PA-B platform meant it was "highly probable" that they were scared away -- perhaps by noise or by vessels linked to the project -- rather than merely choosing to feed elsewhere.

The area near the platform covers a fifth of the whales' known feeding grounds, they said. WWF said its observers watched the whales from four stations along the coast on 22 clear days during the period July 29-Sept. 17.

The Western grey whales can only feed from the seabed, apparently sucking up crustaceans from sediment. That restricts their feeding to within a few kilometres of the Sakhalin coast.

The Shell-led project, which is minority-owned by Japan's Mitsubishi and Mitsui, is Russia's biggest foreign investment and plans to deliver its first cargo of liquefied natural gas in late 2007.

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