Our Burning Planet


Antarctic oil and gas hunt: ‘You just get this rage rising in you’

Antarctic oil and gas hunt: ‘You just get this rage rising in you’
A South African child attends a protest against the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, a Russian oil and gas seismic blaster, as the vessel arrives from Antarctica in Cape Town harbour on 3 April 2023. (Photo: Nic Bothma)

A small but high-profile Extinction Rebellion protest met the Cape Town return of a controversial Russian oil and gas seismic ship on Monday — while the Democratic Alliance's Member of Parliament Dave Bryant said that 'rolling out the red carpet for these ships' is 'helping to prop up the Putin regime'.

Gathering at the edge of Cape Town harbour near the V&A Waterfront on Monday, a handful of Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters called on Antarctic Treaty authorities and the South African government to end their “silence” on Russian activities that once again this summer blasted the Southern Ocean for fossil fuels. 

“You just get this rage rising in you. You just know this is wrong. And we just know it cannot be overlooked; and we do as a society need to say, ‘Is this who we want to be?’” Jacqui Tooke, a spokesperson for XR Cape Town told Daily Maverick.

The Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, a Russian state seismic vessel with airguns onboard, had just sailed into a grey and blustery Table Bay on Monday morning after a two-month government-backed mission looking for oil and gas in Antarctica. 

XR Cape Town had draped flagged signage along the harbour wall, proclaiming: “Karpinsky not welcome here.”

Says Tooke: “We need a greater sense of conversation around this as a start, and hopefully find solutions together. Not just solutions that seem to only benefit a few.”

The Akademik Alexander Karpinsky sails into the Port of Cape Town, a formal Antarctic gateway city, at 9.30am on 3 April. (Photo: Nic Bothma)

In a series of investigations since October 2021, Daily Maverick has provided extensive evidence of Russian oil and gas seismic surveys in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean onboard the Karpinsky. 

According to Kremlin-decreed documents and long-term strategies signed off by a number of Russian government departments, these surveys have never stopped since the 1998 mining ban entered into force and form a core part of the Kremlin’s very latest mining strategy

Sailing via Cape Town, the Karpinsky has completed return missions to Antarctica most years since at least the late 1990s. In 2020, in addition to a dossier of documents and data published by Daily Maverick, Kremlin mineral explorer Rosgeo claimed from a Karpinsky-issued statement in Cape Town harbour that the Southern Ocean seabed contained 500 billion barrels of oil and gas. 

That is, 15 times annual global oil consumption in a warming ocean that hit new record ice lows this summer.

“When the Alexander Karpinsky was here in port, on its way down [to Antarctica in February] — we also sent letters together with other environmental activist groups,” says Tooke, citing a flurry of protests at the V&A Waterfront at the time. The letter was signed by 29 South African groups and the protests made headlines across the world, from London to Moscow. Monday’s protest attracted a throng of photojournalists and subsequent coverage in South African news media.  

In a December 2022 annual report, Rosgeo and associates said that their work was “decreed” by the Kremlin and included “the creation of an information base for the assessment and scientific forecast of the mineral raw-material potential of the Antarctic”. Rosgeo’s Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition (PMGE) subsidiary owns the Karpinsky, whose airguns are designed to blast the seabed for hydrocarbons — but this oil and gas mapping arsenal may harm marine life, experts warn. 

“We have received silence in reply,” Took adds. “So, it seems to be the modus operandi at the moment. But it is not going to keep us from being silent.” 

XR Cape Town’s Jacqui Tooke during a Table Bay protest on 3 April. Here, Tooke speaks out against ‘any country that is breaking the treaty, causing harm to the Antarctic and also searching for fossil fuels’. (Video: Tiara Walters / Nic Bothma)

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 countries including the US, Russia and South Africa. Devoting the icy, climate-threatened region below 60°S to peaceful ideals such as regular scientific activity, the agreement’s signatories today total 56. 

The Madrid Protocol, which has 42 signatories, describes Antarctica’s environmental laws. These laws include the mining ban, which forbids all mineral resource activities including prospecting, except scientific research. 

‘All Antarctic Treaty governments know’

In a damning new interview with Daily Maverick, the prominent American lawyer and activist James Barnes said that “all Antarctic Treaty governments know that Russia is violating the Environmental Protocol’s ban on minerals exploration, but so far they have done nothing”. 

Barnes is founding chair of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Asoc), the group who helped overthrow a now-abandoned 1988 mining pact which ultimately resulted in a dramatic twist: the late 1990s ban. His reaction marks the first rebuke of Russian “exploration” by a senior figure long active within treaty diplomatic circles — but he noted that, at the treaty’s invitation-only meetings, criticism was “circumscribed”. 

“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 … ” warns Barnes, whose organisation enjoys sole environmental non-profit status at treaty meetings. “That is something we keep in the back of our mind.”

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

The Antarctic Treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection has either declined to reply or failed to reply to Daily Maverick’s repeated questions and requests for interviews since we first sent them 18 months ago in October 2021.

Responding to this tightly guarded ice curtain, Tooke says, “Whenever there is an institutional system that is set up to exclude some voices, and only emphasise other voices, we would say there needs to be a better way of doing this. There is too much at stake … ”

‘No appetite from the ANC’

Meanwhile, Dave Bryant, the Democratic Alliance’s Member of Parliament, told Daily Maverick that “there is no appetite from the ANC to seriously consider or investigate any allegations of Russian misdemeanours”.

Bryant says that “recent collaboration between the ANC and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s United Russia party”, which would include military exercises off the South African coast that also caused protests, is proof of the national government’s apparent unwillingness to consider “allegations” of Russian criminality — including an internationally condemned, illegal war against Ukraine since at least February last year. 

Ukraine is a fellow Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol signatory, whose research vessel Noosfera sheltered in Cape Town throughout last year, before returning to Antarctica during the 2022/2023 summer research and resupply season. 

“The ANC government is moving South Africa closer and closer towards becoming a pariah state again. We have already seen international companies pulling out of South Africa due to the ANC’s close relationship with Putin and more sanctions could follow in the coming months,” says Bryant.

“It is clear that the ANC sees no issue with helping to prop up the Putin regime by rolling out the red carpet for these ships. The ANC government has been notified of the alleged illegal activities by Russia in Antarctica but claim to know nothing of these allegations,” says Bryant. His comments echo those of Cape Town Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, who told Daily Maverick in February that Russian Antarctic and other Russian state vessels docking in the port city were a “shameful moral disgrace” — but that the power to stop them rested with national government. 

At the time of publication this week, the entire Russian Antarctic Expedition’s fleet was in port. In addition to the Karpinsky, the polar vessels Akademik Fedorov and Akademik Tryoshnikov have been exchanging cargo. 

Bryant has sent multiple Parliamentary questions about, among others, “ongoing seabed prospecting by Russia” and Antarctic seismic blasting to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, whose national department oversees polar matters at Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings (ATCMs).  

“The ANC government refuses to condemn the Putin regime, in spite of the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for war crimes,” says Bryant. 

According to Bryant, if evidence of Russian activity in potential breach of the Madrid Protocol “has in fact been provided to the minister as alleged, then the ANC government should be raising this themselves at the next ATCM meeting”.

The 45th ATCM takes place in Helsinki, Finland from 29 May to 8 June, where the minister is expected to send a delegation. 

However, in replies to Daily Maverick, Creecy’s department says that, despite a memorandum of understanding between Russia and South Africa, there are currently no active Antarctic scientific partnerships between the two treaty member states — although in the past few months alone Russia has made extensive use of South African port and air facilities to reach Antarctica, and expand its flagship Vostok research station on the eastern side of the continent. 

South African Environment Minister Barbara Creecy in East Antarctica in January, visiting Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth research station. (Photo: @environmentza, Twitter)

Creecy in March Parliamentary replies also said: “South Africa notes the allegations against the Russian Federation, which have not been presented as such at any 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.” 

We asked the minister if she was unaware of the new ban proposal by Asoc, the treaty’s environmental observers, which cited peer-reviewed evidence of “recent Russian Antarctic minerals prospecting activity”. The proposal was tabled at the 43rd ATCM in Berlin, Germany, where four of her officials were present as a decision-making delegation. It also outlines, on a “now” and “forever” basis, a legal pathway for banning hydrocarbon extraction in Antarctica as proposed by a previous academic call. 

Without such changes to the Madrid Protocol, the mining ban — or Article Seven as it is formally known — could be reviewed any time from 2048 onwards should one of the decision-making member states call for a review. 

Russia and South Africa are both Madrid Protocol signatories. 

‘Strengthening’ the mining ban

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 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.”

For her part, Tooke, the XR Cape Town spokesperson, challenged treaty authorities and the South African government to “tell the truth”. 

Russia has blasted the vast majority of airgun lines across the Southern Ocean — at least 140,000km, but Rosgeo and its subsidiary have repeatedly told us that their investigations are simply regular science and do not contravene the treaty’s freedom of scientific investigation cornerstone. The subsidiary, for example, has also produced peer-reviewed work about ice-sheet dynamics and other standard Antarctic geophysics — nevertheless, its so-called geology missions are also deeply interested in a panoply of minerals on the Antarctic continent, including gold and uranium. 

Tooke stresses that XR Cape Town’s calls to action are not about Russia, but any country that may be breaking the mining ban in Antarctica, whose meltwater is likely to dramatically destabilise global ocean life support this century under a high emissions scenario. This, according to a landmark “Day After Tomorrow” study published in the journal Nature end March.  

“We would call on all countries and governments who have signed the Antarctic Treaty to start speaking,” says Tooke. “We would love to see them take action against any country that is breaking the treaty, causing harm to the Antarctic and also searching for fossil fuels in a place where there is clear agreement that no one is going to be doing that.” DM/OBP 

Read more in Daily Maverick:

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

Barbara Creecy ‘not aware’ of East Antarctic ‘seismic blasting’, Russian ‘prospecting’

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

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