Barbara Creecy ‘not aware’ of East Antarctic ‘seismic blasting’, Russian ‘prospecting’
With a fleet of Kremlin icebreakers set to dock in Cape Town, the ‘ANC must come clean’ on its business in the frozen south, says the Democratic Alliance. Meanwhile, though details are murky, South Africa’s environment minister has suggested she is collaborating in an international effort to strengthen Antarctica’s mining ban.
Three state vessels sailing under the 68th Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE) plan to call at the Mother City in the coming weeks.
According to marine tracker data, Russia’s flagship Antarctic research vessel, the Akademik Fedorov, is scheduled to dock in Table Bay this weekend. This, after the 40-year-old icebreaker has spent the first months of the year in the Southern Ocean on her usual round of weather, oceanography and other studies facilitated under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.
Signed by both Russia and South Africa among 10 other founding signatories, the south polar agreement largely devotes the region below 60°S to peaceful ideals, such as tourism and the freedom of scientific investigation.
The Fedorov has also serviced Russia’s five key research stations and delivered cargo to East Antarctica’s Lake Vostok, where a new overwintering complex is being constructed with material ferried through Cape Town by ship and air.
Also currently plying the Southern Ocean is the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, the controversial Russian state seismic research vessel accused by 29 South African civil society organisations of violating the 1998 Antarctic mining ban.
First reported by Our Burning Planet’s series of investigations since October 2021, this ship has not stopped amassing oil and gas resource inventories of the Antarctic seabed since that ban entered into force.
The ban prohibits mineral resource activities such as prospecting — the identification of resource potential — but not standard scientific research, such as critical new understanding into how storms release atmosphere-heating gases.
Owned by none other than the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, Rosgeo, which has repeatedly told us its work is innocuous science, the Karpinsky sparked numerous protests by Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and other volunteers when she arrived in Cape Town in January. The ship’s passage through the port city, as well as the protests staged over several days at the popular V&A Waterfront, made international headlines.
She was expected at Neko Harbour facing South America at the end of February after a renewed season of seismic surveys off East Antarctica — an ocean area blasted by academic airguns from a range of treaty states in recent decades. The Karpinsky is expected to call back at the Mother City before autumn ice closes in.
And the 11-year-old icebreaker Akademik Tryoshnikov left the port of St Petersburg in early March with 560 tons of cargo onboard, which includes a delivery for Vostok. She is due to dock in Cape Town on March 26.
All sailing under the flag of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, there is nothing new about these state vessels turning up in Cape Town — one of just five international official Antarctic gateways relaunched by Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis in the frozen south in January.
Except that — responding to a letter of demand sent by the anti-Karpinsky protestors to national authorities in January, including Hill-Lewis — the mayor himself has made it clear he does not want Russian state vessels crashing into his new gateway parade.
“Russian state vessels should not be here,” Hill-Lewis told Our Burning Planet from East Antarctica, where South Africa has maintained a research station for 60-odd years.
“All of these Russian war exercises, and the meetings with Russian government ministers, are a shameful moral disgrace,” he said, referring to South Africa’s controversial 2023 naval exercises with Russia and China. He also noted he had “no control over the vessels which dock” in Cape Town, because “ports are managed by national government”.
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 28, 2023
Now the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition of which Hill-Lewis is a member, has vowed to write to the ANC-run national government, insisting on a “copy of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between South African and Russian Antarctic research teams”.
According to DA Shadow Environment Minister Dave Bryant, in a DA statement issued this week, the “MOU defines the level of logistical support that South Africa is providing to Russia in pursuit of its national Antarctic programme”.
The “ANC government must come clean on Russian collaboration in Antarctica”, said Bryant.
Bryant added that the statement was a direct response to new Parliamentary questions, posed by himself, in which Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said she was “not aware of any alleged Russian gas and oil prospecting in Antarctica”.
“This prospecting goes against the Antarctic Treaty signed by South Africa and Russia,” argued Bryant.
Citing the Karpinsky’s seismic surveys in the Southern Ocean during the austral summer, Bryant pointed out the “ship is known to be owned by a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned mineral exploration company RosGeo”.
Bryant said he wanted to establish what kind of support South Africa was providing “to facilitate illegal prospecting in the Antarctic by the Putin regime. It is clear that the ANC government is moving ever closer to Russia and refusing to condemn its murderous invasion of Ukraine. It is not unfounded therefore to assume that the ambivalence being shown in relation to illegal Russian prospecting could also be seen as tacit support.”
For her part, Creecy, in her Parliamentary replies signed 21 February, said South African authorities had concluded “different” MOUs with Russian Antarctic state agencies “over the years”. These “coordinate cooperation in scientific research” as well as “logistical and related support activities”.
“Additional arrangements may be instituted as deemed necessary,” she suggested.
Creecy went on to claim that the national Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment was “not aware of any prospecting or seismic blasting along the east coast of Antarctica”.
The minister’s claim is puzzling. Our Burning Planet repeatedly contacted her department since 2021 with detailed documented Russian state evidence of Kremlin-backed oil and gas seismic surveys in East Antarctica.
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Although it took 16 months, Creecy’s communication division formally acknowledged our multi-article investigative series and provided a detailed response about Russia’s use of Cape Town port, which we published in full on 7 February — two weeks before the minister signed her own Parliamentary replies.
In Rosgeo’s February 2020 bombshell statement — issued from the port of Cape Town, South Africa’s legislative capital — it is the Kremlin’s mineral explorer that notes, in unequivocal English, that its Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition (PMGE) subsidiary “has conducted the systematical geological and geographic research since the late 1970s using the Academic Alexander Karpinsky research vessel.
“The marine operations were mainly performed in the Antarctica Indian Ocean sector [East Antarctica], the area of which is more than [4.5 million km2] to the south of the 60th parallel [within the Antarctic Treaty area]. Through the research, three large sedimentary basins were identified here, which included continental margins and southern parts of oceanic hollows: the basins of the Riiser-Larsen Sea, Cosmonaut Sea, Cooperation or Sodruzhestvo Sea, Davis Sea, as well as basins of Mowson [sic] and d’Urville Seas.”
This statement goes on to say that: “The overall length of the comprehensive seismic and gravimagnetic explorations conducted by PMGE within the Antarctic Shelf Seas for all time of explorations is more than 140,000 line km. The potential hydrocarbon resources in the identified sedimentary basins are estimated at approximately 70 billion tons.”
This amount — 500 billion barrels of oil and gas — is equal to 15 times global annual oil consumption.
In an email sent on 18 October 2021 at 11:51am, among our other subsequent comment requests, Our Burning Planet made Creecy’s department aware of Rosgeo’s statements. The email was also acknowledged by her communications division, on the same day, at 12:16pm.
Subsequently, these investigations have been cited by, among others, internationally recognised polar law scholars in peer-reviewed papers produced for Chatham House, GIGA Focus Global and the Royal Australian Navy.
They were also cited in the original 2022 academic call for a “forever ban” on Antarctic hydrocarbon extraction; the 2023 letter of demand, written by 29 civil society organisations; and another proposal tabled at Berlin’s 2022 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Asoc) — the only environmental organisation with ATCM observer status.
The first time such a proposal was tabled before an ATCM since Antarctica’s environmental laws entered into force in 1998, the Asoc proposal calls for a ban that cannot be modified from 2048. It is cited in the publicly available official report of the Berlin meeting where Creecy’s “non-aligned” delegation was not only present — but refused to join a Berlin walkout of several member states during a Russian official’s much-maligned speech. South Africa has abstained from five UN General Assembly resolutions that have condemned Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine.
By all means be concerned about certain activities as noted here and the future role of consensus within the Antarctic Treaty System (which has relevance for fisheries conservation and marine protected areas in particular): https://t.co/XbGRpPh5IQ
— Klaus Dodds (@klausdodds) October 27, 2022
Seismic blasting in East Antarctica, which Creecy has suggested she and her staff have never heard of, is an exhaustively assessed and long-established — though controversial — fact of life for marine geophysicists operating in the Southern Ocean during summer. Germany’s Polarstern seismic icebreaker, second only to Russia’s Karpinsky, has conducted a significant portion of her at least 60,000km in seismic surveys off East Antarctica — also plied by South Africa’s SA Agulhas II research vessel every year.
The South African ship has no airguns and does not conduct seismic blasting.
But those seismic activities by other states, and their potentially damaging impacts on marine life, are also documented in a seminal recent review study produced by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research — the world’s most influential organisation on south polar science.
Seismic surveys in East Antarctica were publicly reported by the Karpinsky in Russian state expedition diaries, published in February. East Antarctic seismic surveys were also reported by Germany’s flagship polar research institution, the Alfred Wegener Institute, to gather climate-change and geology data as recently as 2022; and in West Antarctica in 2023.
“It seems hard to believe that neither the Minister (who visited Antarctica recently) nor her department would have any knowledge of the prospecting, which has been covered widely by local and international media and NGOs,” Bryant says in his statement.
We also asked Creecy’s spokespeople if they could shed light on why the minister has claimed her department was “not aware” of East Antarctic seismic blasting when they have already commented on published articles citing evidence associated with it; and when seismic methodology in East Antarctica is widely documented in authoritative Russian, German and other sources freely disseminated under the data exchange principles.
We did not receive responses by deadline.
Creecy’s Parliamentary replies, however, were keen to stress that “it is critically important to note that currently, measures to reinforce international efforts through relevant and proactive interaction between government and legislative bodies are being explored to extend the ban on commercial mining beyond 2048”.
Although this would be the kind of initiative welcomed by international campaigners, who have pointed out that climate risks do not justify additional hydrocarbon extraction, the ban cannot be extended for the simple technical reason that it does not expire.
It is permanent.
Should one of the treaty’s 29 decisionmaker signatories request a review, however, the ban on mineral resource extraction can be weakened or even lifted — and it is this modification potential that Asoc and co’s proposals have focused on.
For clarification of these “measures”, and whether they would mirror recently tabled and published proposals, Our Burning Planet has also reached out to Creecy’s department.
Here, answers were also not received by deadline, but — given the international significance of South Africa’s potential push to strengthen the mining ban — we will publish them if they are received. DM/OBP