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Shell to avoid drilling in World Heritage sites

LONDON — LONDON - One of the largest oil companies in the world, Royal Dutch/Shell, has promised to avoid exploring or drilling on sites that carry the United Nations' World Heritage designation. It is the first energy company to make such a promise.

Shell's decision comes a week after the International Council on Mining and Metals, a group of the world's 15 largest mining companies, said its members would stop exploring or mining on World Heritage sites.

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Taken together, the commitments are a "big step forward," said Mechtild Rossler, director of European heritage for UNESCO, the U.N. agency that controls the program. "We would have liked to see a more global picture with the gas and oil industry, but Shell is a good starting point."

More than 170 countries participate in the World Heritage program, which was founded in 1972 to identify, protect and preserve cultural or natural areas that provide "outstanding value to humanity." The United States was the first country to sign on to the program.

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A site is nominated by a local government, and UNESCO's application review process can take as long as five years. If the site is approved, the 170 countries pledge to help protect it.

The oil and mining pledges are part of larger movement by corporations to designate some areas as "no go" zones, environmentalists said. Shell and the mining companies have "decided there is more shareholder value to their reputation than the resources" they could tap in World Heritage sites, said Rob Lake, director of corporate governance at Henderson Global Investors in London, which manages $152 billion in assets.

Shell's promise is unlikely to have any effect on the company's current business because most World Heritage sites are not oil-rich. But the decision could have some practical effect. The Wadden Sea, an area with abundant natural gas off the coast of the Netherlands, is on the World Heritage's tentative site list, along with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. President Bush's energy plan includes opening the Alaskan range to drilling.

Shell did have plans to explore for oil and gas in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh, a World Heritage site since 1997 that houses the world's largest mangrove forest. It abandoned the idea in 2001 after pressure from environmentalists.

Sir Philip Watts, the Shell chairman, announced the plans in a speech at the headquarters of the World Conservation Union in Geneva on Thursday.

Some environmentalists said that they welcomed Shell's promise but that it did not go far enough. "It's such a small step, it is hard to rejoice," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, an environmental group in San Francisco. "I suppose you could call it a conceptual breakthrough for an oil company to say it won't drill in the Grand Canyon or on the Galapagos Islands, but any school kid can tell you they shouldn't."

Mining, drilling and logging on World Heritage sites is not unheard of, and it often causes bitter battles between international conservationists and local governments, which say the activities are dictated by economics. In 1998, the mining company Energy Resources of Australia started digging for uranium in Kakadu Park, a wetland in the Northern Territories that had been a World Heritage site since 1981.

In other instances, World Heritage sites have suffered when local governments do not have the resources to protect them.

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Analysts say it is easier for Shell to rule out drilling in World Heritage sites than it is for its peers. "Shell has a much more diverse resource base" than the competition, with reserves it can tap around the world, said Doug Leggate, a Citigroup oil analyst.


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