Our Burning Planet


HELSINKI EXPLAINED: Antarctica’s mining ban may face meltdown, but let’s pretend everything’s chill

HELSINKI EXPLAINED: Antarctica’s mining ban may face meltdown, but let’s pretend everything’s chill
Antarctic Treaty flags wave in front of the Scandic Grand Marina hotel at the Port of Helsinki, where many delegates stayed during the 45th Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting over two weeks in May and June. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

The ban allows for a review conference that could lead to an extraction agreement or a walkout, endangering Antarctica’s fragile wilderness. A majority-sponsored working paper presented at the annual meeting of Antarctic states in Helsinki downplays these concerns. It also brushes off mining-associated activities like an abandoned popsicle on a scorching summer’s day.

Read Tiara Walters’s full investigation on the Helsinki Declaration here

Helsinki, Finland — A declaration unveiled at the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, held in the Finnish capital, unwittingly shines a light on a troubling truth: Antarctica’s 25-year-old mining ban faces an uncertain future.

During the two-week, invitation-only meeting attended by representatives from 29 decision-making countries, Daily Maverick reported that urgent issues such as ice-sheet loss and rising sea levels were discussed, but that no significant agreements were concluded. The meeting ended 8 June.

We also reported that the Helsinki Declaration has its merits. For starters, it tries to reinforce the commitments of major states — including Australia, China, Germany, France and South Africa — to uphold the mining ban. And, crucially, this declaration, though non-binding, warns about a tenacious myth that the ban expires in 2048. (Ongoing reports on Antarctica, including Daily Maverick’s investigative series, have clarified that the ban has no predetermined expiry date.)

But when championing their diplomatic achievements, the architects of these laws fail to emphasise that the ban is not immune to pressure or even expiry under the Madrid Protocol. (This protocol is the constitutional framework that describes the environmental laws to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.) 

The Madrid Protocol allows treaty states to request a review of the mining ban starting in 2048. There is no guarantee this will happen, and the ban may remain in place. But if certain conditions are met, the protocol provides for the negotiation of a new mining agreement, which is the opposite of a ban. This threatens Antarctic wilderness already impacted by climate change.

Yet, a US-drafted working paper co-sponsored by 23 other decision-making countries, which was presented in Helsinki and proposes a reaffirmation of the mining ban, does not really tell that story. 

The working paper, which informs the Helsinki Declaration’s mining-ban reaffirmation, downplays some grim facts — such as the historical reasons behind why it may be possible, ultimately, to abandon the ban.

Revising the past

It was the US, in the years leading up to the late 1950s, who said, “Hey, how about we propose this treaty?” 

To this day, the treaty is rightly lauded as a diplomatic coup, prohibiting nuclear testing, military operations and territorial claims. The Antarctic Treaty System, the greater suite of companion agreements, would also lead to the mining ban that entered into force in 1998. The US even kept the official records as the treaty’s depositary.

But during the 1991 Madrid negotiations they may also have been the masterminds behind the potential expiration of the mining ban.

Yep, it was the US negotiating team who said, “Nope, we won’t sign unless there’s a withdrawal clause in place here.” Curtis Bohlen, their chief delegate and a George Bush Sr ally, seemed to think a permanent ban was a party pooper. Instead, he told The New York Times future generations deserved the right to decide. 

The US’s position may now be markedly different under the likes of the Biden administration, as the working paper suggests, but in 1992 a now-defunct US House of Representatives committee claimed they had wanted an “indefinite” ban only, rather than a permanent one.

“The United States was prepared to agree to an indefinite ban on mineral resource activities, but refused to accept a permanent ban in the event minerals would need to be obtained from Antarctica in the future … The US insisted upon the withdrawal clause as a condition of signing the protocol.” 

‘Global’ support of 42 states

The mining ban allows scientific research, but not mining activities like prospecting, so it is not easy to understand why the working paper does not acknowledge the possibility of prospecting by some among treaty states. 

WATCH: Asking why not one country has publicly questioned oil and gas research in a wilderness threatened by fossil fuel consumption, Tiara Walters reports on the doorsteps of the recently concluded closed-door consultative meeting in Helsinki.

Russia, one of 12 founding treaty signatories, has been looking for oil and gas in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica since the mining ban entered into force. A Russian Antarctic Expedition-flagged ship has done so under the pretext of so-called legal “scientific research” via the Port of Cape Town, while openly declaring these activities serve Moscow’s long-term geopolitical and economic interests.

In response to our queries about these awkward, conflicting positions, and their thoughts on Russia’s fossil fuel forays into Antarctica, the US Embassy to South Africa stated its commitment to preserving Antarctica for peace and science, emphasising the declaration adopted in Helsinki. 

The embassy further noted a strong “global” commitment to preventing commercial mineral extraction, including fossil fuels, in the region. 

“Global” could be an overstatement, given that only 42 out of 190-odd countries have actually signed up to this mining ban, out of what may be a lack of interest, geopolitical considerations or limited funds, because not everyone can afford to do science in Antarctica. (The tacit “support” of non-signatories is baked into the assumption that they would hardly challenge the might of countries such as the US, China and Russia.)

The working paper also casts doubt on the need for stronger measures to enforce the existing ban. 

Act fast against slow wheels 

Academics, including Antarctic governance expert Professor Alan Hemmings, have called for an actual permanent ban on oil and gas extraction in the region. In other words, contrary to Bohlen’s interpretation of what future generations needed (or, perhaps more appropriately, what his government wanted), the academic proposal advocates an evolved ban that could never be changed at any point from 2048 onwards.

Hemmings and Dr Patrick Flamm, in their seminal peer-reviewed paper that is the first of its kind, say those changes must be made now, because mid-century is not as far ahead as we think. 

Here, Hemmings — a professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and a global authority in Antarctic governance — makes a non-awful point. 

The mining ban is already 25 years old, so it may have hit the halfway mark to potential annihilation.

And for those who have not noticed: this year also means it has been nearly two decades that the states responsible for upholding the ban have yet to bring into force the 2005 agreement that holds perpetrators responsible for any environmental emergencies that may arise in Antarctica. 

So, the wheels of Antarctic governance turn glacially, creating fertile territory for a state who wants to sustain the status quo by delaying the necessary changes and hoping for the best.

A delegate, one minute late, rushes in for the last day of the consultative meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on Thursday, 8 June. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

Which brings us back to the Helsinki Declaration. It is all very well to champion universal support for a non-binding reaffirmation of the mining ban. But arguing otherwise, such as claiming the Madrid Protocol is a “gentleman’s agreement”, presumably would have attracted unwanted attention. 

Instead of offering overwhelming support, maybe some just did not object.

Jenga tower at a toddler convention

With the ice curtain firmly in place, frozen into position by a veil of public relations, it does not seem likely anyone is really listening to what Hemmings et al have been trying to say.  

But if they were, they might concede that an unchangeable ban on oil and gas, and even other minerals, implemented now, could help safeguard Antarctica’s extraordinary wilderness value for the benefit of humankind.

By ditching the review mechanism, and a possible walkout option, they would also be saying, “Let’s not keep this ban twinkling like priceless crown jewels for another 500, 5,000, or 50,000 years. Who needs that?” 

There is another way of looking at what Bohlen and his colleagues gifted the 2048 generation — today’s toddlers who will be in their mid-twenties then, at the brave new start of their professional lives. 

Should even one country exercise its right to a review, in a resource-scarce world where any number of minerals might still be required, it is possible that those toddlers might grow into adults who will end up thinking, “Wow, that 50-year ban now seems like a token political gesture compared with the mind-boggling expanse of time shimmering beyond mid-century. Thanks for the right to decide, old-timers. We’ll deal with it now, when life gets real.”

Antarctica remains remote, and tough to crack, and yet, the ban’s vulnerability and the expiration myth may both keep it in the crosshairs of exploitation — or eventually, even, if it ever gets to the withdrawal stage, as vulnerable as a jenga tower at a toddler convention.

Top-secret party: governments perfect the art of whispering

But shhh, why tell anyone. While rumours of Antarctic prospecting are known, not a single Antarctic government admitted it in Helsinki. Well, not publicly at least. 

Some, like South Africa, have consistently denied awareness of providing passage to Russia’s Antarctic search for oil and gas.

In an interview with Daily Maverick, Finnish polar ambassador Tiina Jortikka said she was unfamiliar with those activities too, even though we have documented them since 2021

Despite producing more underwhelming outcomes, this globally critical annual consultative meeting did achieve something singular: it received almost no media coverage, with Daily Maverick being the only news organisation present over two weeks.

No press conferences were held, and media access was limited — but then this kind of low-profile politics is the case at every annual meeting.  

This meeting was not actively promoted to journalists due to geopolitical sensitivity, we were told by one well-placed official not authorised to speak. Ukraine and Russia participated in the negotiations. 

Next year’s meeting will be hosted by India, ranked 161st on the World Press Freedom Index, three places ahead of Russia. DM

Read our other coverage of the 45th Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting: 

Helsinki heatpocrisy: Overlooked Russian oil/gas hunt exposes chinks in Antarctic climate declaration

South African opposition escalates calls for government accountability on Russian Antarctic prospecting

‘Artivism’: Extinction Rebellion calls for ‘forever ban’ on mining in Antarctica

Ukrainian polar captain: ‘I come from a family of seamen and long for Noosfera to return to my homeland’

IPCC co-chair lifts the ‘Ice Curtain’ at Antarctic climate meeting in Finland

Helsinki or high water? Summit tackles Antarctica’s desperate battle

No More Mister Ice Guys: Russia, SA fail to take a climate stand at top Antarctic meeting in Finland

Tiara Walters is a full-time reporter for Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit. Walters’s travel to Helsinki has been made possible, in part, by the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Finnish Embassy to South Africa.

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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