Amid Green Peace Protests, ExxonMobil Readies for Summer Project in Russian Chukchi

A walrus haul-out in the Serdtse Kamen Cape on the Chukotka Peninsula. (Photo: Anatoliy Kochnev, Haulout Keepers)
A walrus haul-out in the Serdtse Kamen Cape on the Chukotka Peninsula. (Photo: Anatoliy Kochnev, Haulout Keepers)

Norwegian police and Special Forces  cleared Green Peace protestors off an oil rig in the Barents Sea this week. Activists have since been using a boat to block access to the proposed drill site, which could become the world’s Northern-most offshore oil well. The action is part of increasing efforts by environmental groups.

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“We are escalating our actions against Arctic drilling. I mean, the oil industry is escalating their activities in the far North, and so are we,” said Arctic campaigner Sune Scheller from aboard the Esperanza in the Barents Sea.

Scheller was in Point Hope two years ago with Green Peace protesting Shell’s offshore exploration in the Chukchi Sea. And while the company announced earlier this year they won’t be resuming work in Chukchi waters this season, there’s an American company that will—but on the Russian side.

“Seismic surveys will go along in certain parts of the Russian license areas this year and next year, just like we did in the Kara Sea,” said Patrick McGinn, spokesperson for ExxonMobil, which is partnered with Russian energy company Rosneft in several oil and gas ventures, including a seismic survey in the Chukchi Basin above the Chukotka Peninsula west of the Bering Strait.

Seismic surveys are an early step in assessing potential oil reserves, and use blasts of air to map the sea floor.

In its partnership, ExxonMobil handles project management and technical expertise, while Rosneft handles local affairs. McGinn says both companies have extensive protocols in place to make sure national and international rules are closely followed.

“Just like in the United States, in Russia the oil companies are required to have public consultation meetings, and Rosneft does that with their local communities where they talk about what’s going to take place.”

But several groups in the Chukotka region have criticizedRosneft’s conduct in the consultation process. They’ve filed a claim with the public prosecutor’s office alleging that the ecological assessments are based on a different habitat, and insufficiently consider social and environmental impacts on marine mammals near Chukotka. Aleksey Zimenko, director of the Center for Wild Nature Preservation, wrote in January that by ignoring input from local populations, Rosneft is violating current legislation in Russia.

There’s also disagreement over the impact to marine mammals from seismic testing—a  debate taking place in Alaska, too.

Sue Banet is with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which handles oil and gas permitting in US federal waters, and bases its seismic regulation on scientifically established protocols. American companies like ExxonMobil are extremely careful when it comes to the regulations around monitoring marine mammals, Banet said.

“During activity there will be continual monitoring from the agencies—and BOEM in particular—based on reports from observers that will be on all the ships, and also from weekly reports on operations.”

The monitoring program puts trained observers on survey boats. Their job is spotting whales, walruses, and other marine mammals, and instructing the crew to reduce or cease seismic operations until the animals have passed.

McGinn says ExxonMobil takes the measures very seriously, adding, “although, I got to tell you, we’ve been doing this for many decades in the water and there’s never been a documented case, a proven case, of a marine mammal being injured by a seismic testing.”

But many say the monitoring program doesn’t work. In December, Anatoliy Kochnev, a Russian walrus biologist, wrotethat Rosneft has offered insufficient evidence seismic blasts will not disrupt the massive walrus pods Chukotkan hunters rely on.

In Alaska, the North Slope Borough banned seismic and industrial noise during the fall Bowhead hunt, citing scientific evidence backing up claims by whaling captains that—observed or not—underwater noise deflects whales.

For Scheller, proper conduct is irrelevant because development is premature so long as there’s no real ability to cleanup accidents if a well does go online.

“There is no oil spill response plan when a major oil spill takes place that far North,” Scheller said. “You have to take into consideration the very long distance to any usable infrastructure, the amount of ships that can respond to it is minimal. And when the oil gets mixed with the ice it just becomes an impossible job to do.”

While activists protest Arctic drilling in the Barents, ExxonMobil and Rosneft are set to begin work this season once the last of the Chukchi sea ice moves out.