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ExxonMobil Oil and Gas Exploration Is Root Cause of Whale Deaths in Madagascar

09/26/2013 02:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

Imagine you're relaxing in your living room, reading or listening to music, and you hear a dynamite blast exploding in your house. Not just one, but repeated blasts every ten seconds, and they don't stop. Surely, you're not going to finish your book, you're more likely to run from your home to a quieter location -- even if it means being thrown off your normal routine. The good news is, this is not going to happen to you. But the bad news is that it may be about to happen to thousands of whales and dolphins that live, feed, mate and migrate in the Atlantic Ocean, especially if we don't learn from a study released today that confirms that exploration technology blasts killed whales in Madagascar.

Exxon Mobil's oil exploration in Madagascar in 2008 involved the use of multi-beam echosounders (MBEs), which produce blasts of more than 120 decibles. For 75 whales in the area, these disruptive blasts proved deadly back then. And now, years later, the final analysis shows that extremely loud noises drove dozens of melon-headed whales into dangerously shallow water where they died from exposure, dehydration or starvation. This is four times more whales than were killed by the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

Proving cause and effect is very difficult to do, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Now for the first time, they proved it. Scientists have long argued that extremely loud noises could disturb, injure and even kill dolphins and whales but this new report is the first to show a clear cause-and-effect relationship.

A proposal that President Obama is now considering would allow similar but even more intense exploration using airgun blasts in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to Florida. According to government estimates, this action could injure 138,000 marine mammals, and "disturb" more than 13 million more. Disturbances, like injuries, can lead to deaths. Disturbance is what drove the melon-headed whales to the shallow water, where they later died.

In ExxonMobil's Madagascar testing, a wall of sound exceeding 120 decibels at a frequency of 12 kHz covered a very large area, moving with the survey ship for hours and driving the startled whales into a death trap. These types of sounds are well known to interrupt the vital behaviors of whales and dolphins such as mating, feeding, breathing and communicating, even when they come from far away. But the impacts on their behavior and what that may mean for their survival are difficult to predict.

In the Atlantic, the situation could actually be much worse. Blasts from those seismic airguns at 250 decibels or more would be the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean next to dynamite. We are talking about a sound 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine, and like the imagined living room explosions, they happen every 10 seconds, for 24 hours a day, and for days to weeks on end.

These predicted impacts sound bad, but it gets worse. The number of expected disturbances to marine mammals (13.5 million) is a gross underestimate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration is planning to release new science, that will show that even more animals are likely to be harmed by the intense noises.

This new science, combined with today's report on the whales killed by exploration technology in Madagascar, should be reason enough to at least put this proposal on hold, if not stop it in its tracks. But, to the contrary. The Obama administration is moving forward, to get seismic blasting started, even though oil and gas development is still at least five years away.

Oceana has urged the administration to reject this deadly seismic testing in the Atlantic at least until safer technologies are available. More than 100,000 individuals and 50 Members of Congress agreed. At the very least the president should wait until all of the science has come in before making a decision that could irreparably harm or these intelligent marine mammals, as ExxonMobil seems to have done, however indirectly, in Madagascar.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the technology used by Exxon and other oil exploration companies as "seismic"; the technology used is multi-beam echosounders.

The author also corrected the text to acknowledge that the intensity of seismic airguns is greater than that of multi-beam echosounders. The errors have since been corrected.