Our Burning Planet


‘All’ governments ‘know’ Russia is ‘violating’ iconic Antarctic mining ban

‘All’ governments ‘know’ Russia is ‘violating’ iconic Antarctic mining ban
The Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, a Kremlin seismic blaster, returns to Cape Town on 3 April 2023 after an expedition in the Southern Ocean. (Photo: Nic Bothma)

In the first public rebuke of Russian ‘exploration activities’ by a senior figure long active within Antarctic diplomacy, the American lawyer James Barnes says a Kremlin oil and gas seismic vessel set to arrive in Cape Town on Monday is ‘violating’ the mining ban he fought to introduce. ‘All’ Antarctic governments know what Russia is doing in the melting Southern Ocean, Barnes warns, but ‘so far’ have failed to act.

In a damning interview with Daily Maverick, a prominent American environmental activist and lawyer has blasted Russian oil and gas seismic surveys in Antarctica as a “violation” of the fragile region’s historic 1998 mining ban.

This seismic activity — which caused a flurry of protests in January in the Antarctic gateway port of Cape Town — is now known to “all” 42 major state signatories of that mining ban, he warns.

“All Antarctic Treaty governments know that Russia is violating the Environmental Protocol’s ban on minerals exploration, but so far they have done nothing,” according to James Barnes, founding chair of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Asoc). Barnes first made these remarks in a social media comment in January. 

The mining ban’s enforcers include significant geopolitical players — China, France, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the US. And now that science has warned that “Day After Tomorrow” ice melt could profoundly alter ocean life support by mid-century, this apparent refusal to talk about Russian “minerals exploration” will be seen as a particularly noteworthy failure by 29 South African groups who have vowed ongoing protests against the Kremlin’s Antarctic seismic blaster. This vessel, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, is set to arrive in Cape Town on 3 April

For his part, Barnes’s reaction marks the first rebuke of Russian “exploration” by a senior figure long active within diplomatic circles of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty — the agreement that governs Antarctica for “peaceful” ideals such as regular scientific activity.

In this 60-minute interview with investigative journalist Tiara Walters, lawyer James Barnes argues that, even though treaty governments are ‘worried’ about Russia’s ban ‘violations’, they have failed to say so publicly 

Under the treaty’s environmental laws — the Madrid Protocol — the mining ban outlaws “any activity relating to mineral resources” except scientific research. The Protocol was signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998.

It is these laws that have stood sentinel to the ice scapes below 60°S after an activist coalition co-led by Barnes’s Asoc — which has sole environmental observer status at the treaty’s invitation-only meetings — helped overthrow a now-abandoned mining pact.

Waging a titanic battle from the 1970s to the late 1990s, Barnes and colleagues had feared the pact was a fig leaf for destructive extraction in this near-pristine refuge. In a dramatic twist, their efforts helped transform the mining pact into the ban instead. In 2023, Antarctica and its speculated mineral stocks still hold out as Earth’s last unmined frontier.

Yet — as Our Burning Planet’s investigations since October 2021 have revealed — the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, Rosgeo, has never stopped its yearly oil and gas missions via Cape Town since the mining ban entered into force. 

Indeed, the Rosgeo-owned Karpinsky is equipped with airguns that may harm marine life, and returns to Cape Town after yet another Kremlin-decreed summer mission to study the mineral potential of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean

This brings Russia’s entire south polar fleet, all sailing under the Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE), to Table Bay at the same time: The Akademik Tryoshnikov will deliver about 560 tonnes of cargo to Antarctica after collecting material from the Akademik Fedorov — the RAE’s flagship. The Karpinsky’s RAE sister vessels were both in port at the time of publication. 

‘Failure to tell people in the proper way’

From 2048, the ban — or Article Seven — may be changed or even lifted. That is, should just one of the treaty’s current 29 decision-making powers request a review, triggering a process that needs majority support and a new mining pact to roll into action. This review mechanism applies not just to oil and gas, but any minerals Antarctic member states may need then: including possible newly found deposits.  

Rosgeo’s mineral missions have also scoured the Antarctic continent — probing gold, diamonds, copper-nickel, coal, iron ore, molybdenum and even uranium across at least 2.5 million km2 of mountains — in addition to a Southern Ocean area bigger than the EU. But, in detailed replies to Our Burning Planet, Rosgeo has denied its seismic surveys would serve any practical use in a post-2048 world. They are — after all — purely scientific, the mineral explorer has repeatedly explained

The Akademik Alexander Karpinsky on a moody ocean outside Cape Town harbour on Saturday 28 January, arriving in the port city from St Petersburg en route to Antarctica. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

But when asked if war-hit Russian oil and gas would now be less interested in Antarctica, the so-called “Department of Geology and Mineral Resources of the Antarctic” told us they did not foresee “any changed circumstances for the potential of Antarctic mining in the longer-term future”. 

A close Rosgeo research partner, this department belongs to the state marine geology institute. And, on its website, the department is not coy about its interests in the “predictive assessment of the resource potential of the Antarctic”. It also says it has amassed a “huge amount of knowledge” about the region’s mineral resources, and notes that probing Antarctica’s “mineral and raw material potential” is its top goal — all with the aim of realising Russia’s national interests.

And then there’s the non-trivial fact that as none other than the Kremlin’s mineral explorer — Rosgeo is not exactly a pure research outfit. It is a resource company focused on extraction. And it is the largest geological exploration holding in Russia — keen to associate itself with almost every major state mineral deposit dug up on Russian soil since, well, 1491

Barnes says it is “smokescreens” such as these that reveal that “Russia basically has not been very open about telling us, at least not since 2002, why they are doing this and what their goals are and what they hope to achieve from it”.

Under laws that require treaty member states to exchange data, a tightly edited Russian information paper tabled at the treaty’s 2002 consultative meeting in Warsaw argues that Russia’s “reconnaissance” and “regional” geology “must not be mistaken for mineral exploration” — an activity that includes “prospecting”. But an earlier, much more graphic draft of the Warsaw information paper seen by Our Burning Planet argues — in emphatic capital letters — that it is impossible to separate geology from, for instance, “prospecting”. It also refuses to rule out “actual utilisation of the Antarctic mineral wealth” in “the indefinitely remote future”. That earlier draft can be viewed here

Unsurprisingly, Russia, Barnes says, appears to be in a “class of its own”

For instance, the Kremlin has repeatedly alleged in state documents that the Southern Ocean seabed holds 500 billion barrels of oil and gas, as researched by at least 140,000km in state-decreed airgun surveys which would — by Russia’s own admission — represent the “overwhelming majority” of work required to identify Antarctica’s potential supergiant oilfields. 

The surveys also materially outpace the seismic nautical mileage produced by other Antarctic states, although China and India have also been linked to Antarctic mineral “prospecting”. (India is set to host the treaty’s 2024 meeting.)

Barnes argues that “in every case, we have to look at what the purpose of the research is. And in the Antarctic Treaty System, every country — because it is an open science system in theory and mostly in practice — is supposed to tell all the other parties what they are actually doing, what their goals are and what they have found … 

“I definitely put Russia in a different category on those two levels: the size and extent; and the failure to tell people in the proper way what they are actually doing and what they are finding.”

Article Seven ‘violations’: ‘prospecting’ vs science

“In the earlier 2002 document … they are very clear. They are looking for oil and gas deposits … ” argues Barnes, who has been based in France for decades. “So, the reason I say they are violating Article Seven is I think they are carrying out minerals exploration activities and that is not seen as regular science.”

Last year South African-led research published in the journal Nature advanced critical understanding of how Southern Ocean storms drive CO2 outgassing.

Only the scientific illiterate would argue this is not existentially important, legal scientific gas research. 

The terms “science” and “prospecting” are not even defined by the Madrid Protocol’s environmental laws — arguably because each activity, in its classic sense, is obvious. 

Yet, Antarctic “prospecting” is explained by the Wellington Convention (also known as the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, or Cramra). This Convention is the abandoned 1988 mining pact — Barnes’s bête noire — that was signed but never ratified by 19 major states including Russia and South Africa. Though superseded by the Madrid Protocol, which covers a panoply of Antarctic environmental laws, including waste disposal and impact assessments, the Wellington Convention remains open for accession. 

Demonstrating its current authority, the United States Code still defers to the Wellington Convention’s definition of “prospecting” as an outlawed “mineral resource activity” — which is also outlawed by the South African constitution. Thus, the practical pursuit of “prospecting”, as both the Wellington Convention and the US’s foundational legal code point out, means activities aimed at “the identification of mineral resource potential for possible exploration and development”. 

Even Russia’s 20-year-old Warsaw paper — thus, the Kremlin’s most recent apparent attempt to explain its mineral resource activities — piggybacks on the Wellington Convention’s “unequivocal” definition of “prospecting”.

And the definition pivots around this singular concept: “The identification of mineral resource potential.” 

In recent years, it is precisely this hunt for Antarctica’s “mineral resource potential” that consistently pops up in Russian state documents, and so-called research papers, with clockwork regularity. 

  • In 2022 and the period up to 2030, identifying the Southern Ocean’s “mineral raw material potential (emphasis ours — Ed) is a key goal for the Russian state and Rosgeo’s Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition (PMGE), the Rosgeo subsidiary that owns the Karpinsky seismic blaster.
  • Also in 2022, the French-claimed D’Urville Sea’s so-called “high oil and gas potential”, off East Antarctica, is described in a new petroleum geology paper by Rosgeo’s PMGE subsidiary.
  • In 2020, the “oil and gas potential of the Antarctic shelf”is celebrated — in daylight English — in the Karpinsky’s Cape Town-issued announcement. (This statement also shocked with claims that 15 times global annual oil consumption — or 70 billion tons or 500 billion barrels — are cached in large sedimentary basins beneath the Southern Ocean.)
  • In 2018, the “assessment of the mineral resource potentialof the subsoil is carried out to consolidate Russia’s priorities in Antarctica and its marginal seas”, said the Rosgeo subsidiary.
  • In 2017, the “mineragenic potential”of the Antarctic continent and the “oil and gas potential of the seas awashing it” are assessed for the Russian state, for “geopolitical” reasons, by the subsidiary. “The works of the PMGE aimed at studying the geological structure and mineral resources of the Antarctic are of geopolitical nature. They ensure guarantees of Russia’s full participation in any form of possible future development of the Antarctic mineral resources — from designing the mechanisms for regulating such activities up to their direct implementation,” the subsidiary reveals.

And so on and so on.

Nevertheless, in interviews with Our Burning Planet, the Russian state marine geology institute’s Department of Geology and Mineral Resources of the Antarctic was at pains to shine a spotlight on its “great efforts” towards open data — “all” viewable on the Antarctic magnetic anomaly project; the Antarctic Seismic Data Library System; and a database for the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). They also stressed as achievements “a lot of publications based on our marine geophysical data”; cooperating “with colleagues from many countries” on, for instance, ice-sheet dynamics; and “our great contribution to Antarctic geoscience”

Both the RAE and Rosgeo’s own subsidiary have also been actively involved in old-school, legal Antarctic science for decades. For instance, the subsidiary claims it was instrumental in helping to discover East Antarctica’s subglacial Lake Vostok, which transformed scientific understanding of the freshwater universe coursing beneath the ice. 

But none of this explains why Russian state actors seem transfixed by Antarctica’s mineral potential, nor why other Antarctic governments are yet to breathe a word about their ongoing declarations of interest in the resources of a region widely thought to look just like South Africa’s very flush Bushveld Igneous Complex. 

Replies from Russian authorities to our detailed follow-up questions were not received by the deadline. 

Compliance vs realpolitik: ‘All Antarctic Treaty governments know’

Barnes contends that “all Antarctic Treaty governments know” about these so-called “violations”, but “so far they have done nothing”. 

“I would say that a number of governments that I have spoken with over the last several years acknowledge they are worried too. They do not think this is pure science, but they are hesitant to say so for various reasons … There are so many other issues on the table every year. And you have a limited bandwidth as a government or as an NGO or a scientist, whatever, to deal with different issues.”

Here, Barnes cites the limited “bandwidth” of his own organisation, which is largely focused on krill management and proclaiming marine protected areas — campaigns that Western governments have already thrown their weight behind. 

“We are circumscribed in various ways ourselves and bear in mind that it only takes one country who decides that no longer can Asoc be an observer and we are not even in the room ourselves … ” Barnes says. “That is something we keep in the back of our mind.”

Perhaps Russia could be forgiven for treating this Panglossian hegemony of peace and science as something of a soft target — in which there is little public accountability beyond invitation-only meetings, and all is for the best in this best of possible worlds.

Indeed, at the 2011 treaty meeting in Buenos Aires, Russia tabled its long-term Antarctic strategy. In it, it listed the “complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon and other natural resources” among its top three objectives.

But it was not so much this brazen declaration that most astonished a 2011 Le Monde editorial, published three months later. Instead, it was “le silence” of all treaty governments: “A ce jour, aucun commentaire, aucune protestation officielle n’a filtré.” [To this day, no comment, no official protest has filtered through.]

A Cape Town ‘unwelcoming committee’ for Russian polar oil and gas survey ship

Campaigners gathered at Cape Town’s popular V&A Waterfront on 26 January to protest the arrival of the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

And then, for an international framework focused on maintaining peace in the last region on Earth never to have seen human bloodshed, there always seems to be an eructing elephant seal in the room.

Russia has waged a brutal, illegal war against Ukraine, a fellow Antarctic Treaty consultative party, since at least February last year. By the time Russia planted a missile “15m” from Kyiv’s Antarctic headquarters, the Ukrainian polar research vessel Noosfera had been sheltering in Cape Town harbour for months, shortly after completing her maiden voyage for the country as war broke out on domestic soil. 

Narrowly missing a server holding Antarctica’s longest-running ozone and climate records, the force of the missile strike had collapsed ceilings and damaged walls. Floors, chairs and desks were covered in shattered glass. Team photos of scientists posing during Antarctic expeditions had flown off walls, landing among ripped-off window blinds.

Even here, it may be virtually impossible to expel Russia from the world’s most well-known peace agreement, because Kremlin-aligned treaty signatories such as South Africa, China and India would have to raise zero objections under a consensus-based system.  

“And maybe that would be counterproductive anyway,” argues Barnes, “because my view is that you are always better off to have people somehow in the ambit of your discussion than just sitting totally excluded on the outside.” 

Asked if realpolitik mattered more than compliance, Barnes concedes that, “in the Antarctic Treaty System, everybody has the right, every consulting party has the right, to go and inspect the facilities, the stations, the activities of any other state. Presumably, that is a compliance mechanism idea — to let governments reassure themselves that bad things are not happening or that compliance is happening … ”

But he adds: “Most countries never carry out any such inspections.”

Airguns: ‘Governments, if they wanted, could take more serious steps’

If Antarctica remains untouched by mineral extraction, it is harder to argue it is untouched by mineral resource activities. 

Here, too, our investigations have shown that, for about 25 years, Antarctic Treaty states have also known about the peer-reviewed noise wars raging within the Southern Ocean (see Part One and Part Two). 

Possible impacts of airguns on marine mammals, those very states were informed, included miscarriages, injury, disease, vulnerability to predation, changes in appetite, disrupted mother-calf bonds, panic, anxiety and confusion.   

Russian seismic surveys since Antarctica’s 1998 mining ban entered into force, totalling at least 140,000km in airgun lines. (Graphic: Righard Kapp)  

But out of currently 56 Antarctic Treaty signatories in total, only one state — Germany — has consistently raised noise trauma and stress, led research and funded conferences.

“There are a number of countries that carry out seismic activities for what appears to me to be a legitimate science,” says Barnes, referring to Antarctic member states such as Germany, whose research vessel Polarstern also passes through Cape Town every year to do, among others, climate-based airgun studies of the Southern Ocean. Germany’s Antarctic airgun lines total in excess of 60,000km. 

“But that does not mean that using the airguns is necessarily the correct thing to be doing. And over the years — over the last 20 to 25 years — there have been several attempts by NGOs to raise acoustic issues … ” says Barnes. “Governments, if they wanted to, could take more serious steps to be transparent about what they are doing … 

“This is an important one,” he says, “and I would love to see it back at a higher level on the table.”

A ‘forever’ ban

The great irony of Antarctica’s mining ban is that it has no expiry date. 

But at any point in the supermassive sweep of space-time beyond 2048, any decision-making party — capitalising on any Antarctic mineral discovery or resource scarcity on Earth — will have the right to trigger a review. 

Of course, in that post-2048 “forever” period, it would probably be environmentally aware robots, not humans, to cross over 60°S and take what they need.  

But for those who wish to safeguard Antarctica’s extraordinary wilderness value, and limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, the current 50 year-period up to 2048 could one day end up looking like nothing but a token political gesture. That is, compared with the 500 or 5,000 years in which the review mechanism may be glimmering on the immediate horizon like the crown jewels themselves.

This is why, in the wake of Russia’s seismic research, Barnes’s Asoc tabled a call at the 2022 treaty meeting for a “forever” ban — one that could never be changed to mine Antarctic oil and gas. Quoting peer-reviewed evidence of “recent Russian Antarctic minerals prospecting”, the call closely follows a 2022 “Now and Never” academic push. This also demands an unchangeable oil and gas ban. 

In South Africa, anti-seismic activists opposing blasting off South African and Antarctic coasts have urged the upcoming treaty meeting in Finland, kicking off 29 May, to do the same

Asoc’s proposal for a ‘forever’ ban on mining oil and gas in Antarctica, tabled at the treaty’s 2022 invitation-only meeting in Berlin. (Source: Antarctic Treaty Meeting Documents Archive)   

If Antarctica is as tough and impractical to mine as many suggest, such changes would surely be an easy coup for everyone, including Russia, to agree on. The changes — the new ban proposals argue — would also give teeth to the treaty’s Paris Agreement contributions, which call for a global warming limit of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels to keep the planet liveable.  

Barnes suggests the “forever” ban might be articulated through a legally binding measure “that buttresses Article Seven and says, ‘This is what we meant when we wrote these words. And this is the kind of research that really is research. And these are activities that are not research …

“That logic I thought was very powerful and it was satisfying on a philosophical level, an ethical level, and so forth. But under the circumstances of last year’s treaty meeting, as I think everybody could understand, there was not any appetite for taking it up,” says Barnes of the war-riven Berlin gathering, where several governments excluding “non-aligned” South Africa condemned Russia’s illegal aggressions against Ukraine. Barnes adds he canvassed a number of national delegations behind the scenes. 

Our Burning Planet has sent repeated sets of questions to Antarctic Treaty authorities, including the treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection, since October 2021. Replies were again not received by the latest deadline.   

The lawyer insists “it is a good discussion to keep having” — even though he does not foresee breakthroughs during an indefinite war. Waiting for the end of the war, and a lengthy process of a rapprochement, may shuttle decision-makers perilously close to the 2048 precipice. 

“Right now, the possibility that there could be minerals exploitation in the future bends the curve of scientific activities in Antarctica in the wrong direction. It gives incentives to some countries, some states, to do things that arguably are not in their own self-interest or anybody’s self-interest, but something is leading them to do that.”

Barnes, now 79, is holding out hope. 

“If we take that option off the table completely, then they will not have any reason to dream that dream. 

“Maybe,” he offers, “they can think of more important dreams.” DM/OBP


In February, a coalition of 29 non-profit groups, including Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace volunteers, called on South African authorities to refuse re-entry to the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky. 

In March replies to follow-up Parliamentary questions by the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy’s department said: “South Africa notes the allegations against the Russian Federation, which have not been presented as such at any of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs). South Africa will keep monitoring the developments regarding these allegations; and will consider its position regarding its working relations within the Antarctic Treaty should new information at the ATCM prove that the Russian Federation is in breach of the Protocol. Remedial action will be considered with the framework provided by the ATCM … if the allegations against the Russian Federation are proven true.” 

Our Burning Planet asked the minister if she was unaware of Asoc’s ban proposal, which cites peer-reviewed evidence of “recent Russian Antarctic minerals prospecting activity”. The proposal was tabled at the 2022 treaty meeting in Berlin, where four of her officials were present as a decision-making delegation. 

In a response, the minister’s department claims no evidence was tabled in Asoc’s ban proposal, which “was not deliberated and consequently had no effect to direct the position of the treaty in this matter. The matter will only be discussed when presented by a consultative party, and that party would need to present sufficient evidence that the Russian Federation has contravened the Protocol,” the department says.

South Africa would not table such a paper at the Finland-hosted ATCM45 in May and June because “no evidence of Russian wrongdoing has been presented at this stage”. 

However, the department suggests, it is now involved in an effort to strengthen the mining ban. 

“South Africa is committed to strengthening Article Seven in cooperation with fellow members of the ATCM,” according to the department. “We await to see the outcome of this process in the ATCM45.”

Also see: 

Revealed: Inside Antarctica’s brutal, lingering noise war on marine life (Part One)

Revealed: Inside Antarctica’s brutal, lingering noise war on marine life (Part Two)

Ice Wide Shut: Inside the secretive world of the Antarctic Treaty

‘Gentleman’s agreement’: Despite mining ban, Russia scours Antarctica for massive fossil fuel deposits

Using Cape Town as a launchpad, Russia boasts of supergiant oil fields in Antarctic wilderness

For tickets to Daily Maverick’s The Gathering Earth Edition, click here.
Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hester Dobat says:

    All those ‘ … ‘ words in inverted commas are very disturbing. It distract so much that it is difficult to filter out the real facts. Sarcasm seem to be dripping from each word. I do not think the real danger was conveyed. Pity because it is a serious issue.

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