Where Your Oil Comes From: Skiing the Sakhalin PipelineNews & Program Updates
Date of trip: April, 2006
Sakhalin island, located in the Russian Far East 40km north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, is not exactly a tourist destination for American travelers. The sometimes harsh weather conditions (heavy typhoons and snow storms), lack of tourism infrastructure, and relative inaccessibility (it is over 6,000 miles east of Moscow and most easily attained from the United States by flying via Korea) all contribute to dissuading most would-be visitors. However, international investment and activity on Sakhalin have skyrocketed in recent years due to offshore oil and gas development. Even though technological limitations have prevented Russian oil companies from accessing the lucrative offshore deposits, a 1994 agreement signed by then-president Boris Yeltsin allowed the big players on the international oil and gas market, including Shell, BP and Exxon, access to Sakhalin.
These days, a plane ride to Sakhalin is a disorientating experience; one asks oneself whether the final destination is in fact Russia, as the crowd consists mostly of Filipino and Turkish laborers, en route to their new jobs laying pipeline through the taiga, and oil executives from all over the world.
The Wild Salmon Center is starting a project on Sakhalin, the Sakhalin Salmon Initiative, to promote conservation and sustainable use of salmon amidst the increasing pressures of extractive industry development. The Sakhalin II pipelines could pose a significant threat to salmon if international best practices are not adhered to during their construction. They cross over 1,000 rivers, many of which are home to several species of salmon. Erosion and pollution from construction activities could ruin salmon spawning grounds in these rivers and severely undermine entire populations. Furthermore, once oil and gas begin to flow down the pipelines, the potential danger of spills or leaks also will become a reality.
On April 1, 2006, Russia Far East Program Assistant Nicole Portley embarked on a 115-km ski trip along the Sakhalin II pipelines. The purpose of the trip was to monitor river crossing construction and post-construction erosion protection.
The Pipeline Route
For the majority of their 800km path, the Sakhalin II oil and gas pipelines follow the main north-south highway and railway. This has provided relatively easy access to the pipeline for construction workers and environmentalists conducting independent monitoring alike. Sakhalin Environment Watch (SEW), an active environmental NGO based in the island's capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, has been monitoring river crossing construction on the 180 rivers that Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (SEIC) has declared Salmon Sensitive Rivers. On these rivers, the company has committed itself to meeting higher environmental standards when crossing rivers. In the map, the yellow circles indicate salmon sensitive rivers where independent monitoring has found SEIC to have violated these standards.
Several miles north of the town of Ado-Timovo, the pipeline strays from the highway, crossing a mountain range en-route to the Offshore Processing Facility (OPF), which will receive oil and gas from the offshore Lunskoye platform and process it before it heads southward. Oil and gas from SEIC’s northernmost Piltun Astoskhskoye platforms also stray from the main highway on their way south to the OPF. A 115km section of the pipeline, from Nogliki to Ado-Timovo, is therefore accessible only by dirt hunting roads, which are being used to transport heavy equipment and workers to this section of pipeline. Far from any town or village, this swath of mountainous terrain turns to an impassible swamp in the spring following the thaw.
Early April was an excellent time to embark on a monitoring expedition along this section of pipeline. With the snow melting during the day and freezing at night, a solid crust of ice formed each morning atop the snow, upon which a fairly steady pace could be maintained on skis. With rivers and their banks also thawing, this provided a good opportunity to observe whether or not effective anti-erosion protection measures had been enacted at the salmon sensitive river crossings.
The River Crossings
SEIC has declared 180 of the over 1,000 rivers that the Sakhalin II pipelines cross "salmon sensitive rivers." On these rivers, the company has committed itself to a higher environmental standard in river crossing construction. Crossings on these rivers must occur during the winter (December-April), so as not to coincide with salmon spawning runs. In-stream work is to be confined to a 24-hour period, so as to disturb the stream as little as possible. Temporary erosion protection must be instated immediately after construction and then replaced with permanent protection measures when the spring thaw takes place. An external observation team must be present during construction and writes reports for each crossing, detailing any and all violations that took place.
The ski monitoring trip provided an interesting opportunity to see if SEIC was living up to its environmental commitment. This section of pipeline includes 14 sensitive salmon river crossings, some of which had already been completed, others which were under construction, and still others which will be completed in the 2006-2007 winter season.
Photos and Observations
The Right of Way, the 50m-wide, deforested swath of land sold to SEIC for construction of the Sakhalin II pipelines, runs through some fairly rugged and steep terrain in the Vostochniy mountain range. For several of the steeper climbs, we needed to use skins and sidestep. This photo is from the Nabil River, where pipeline has not yet been lain and the river crossing has not been undertaken. Both the descent and ascent were fairly difficult on skis – one can only wonder how the heavy machinery will fare!
While skiing, the presence of two bumps, one, or zero indicated the presence of two, one, or none of the pipelines beneath us, indicating the relative progress of construction at a certain location. Over much of the monitored section, one or both of the pipelines had been laid in a trench on dirt mounds, subsequently buried by the large quantity of snow that fell on Sakhalin in 2005-2006. The pipelines will be buried at a later date.
River crossings can be fairly busy places, with an abundance of heavy machinery at work. Here, a wooden, temporary bridge has been placed over the river being crossed. This would be a violation on a salmon sensitive river, on which a "natural" bridge of gravel atop snow must be employed. However, as this river was not among the 180 listed rivers, such a bridge may be used.
The external observation team’s crossing report for the Plelyarna River crossing, posted on the SEIC website, states that all temporary soil erosion control measures were installed, including silt fences and bank protection measures. Unfortunately, the site inspection revealed a different picture. As the photo shows, the silt fences on the bridge had collapsed, there were no fences near the river banks, and river banks had not been stabilized to prevent erosion. As the river has already thawed, the exposed soil could be carried downstream by rain and snowmelt, potentially burying salmon spawning grounds.
One of two exposed banks of the Pilenga river was also left without erosion control.
For an approximately 8 km section (from the OPF to km8 to the south), the entire width of the Right of Way turned into a very active and VERY muddy construction site. The section was impassible on skis and had to be walked. An unknown tributary of the Orkunyy river, running very close to the salmon spawning river, ran directly through the construction site, where it was continually being crossed by vehicles and heavy machinery. The sad state of affairs made for one sad spawning salmon...