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Russia’s Antarctic ‘prospecting’ links via SA warrant deeper scrutiny, hears UK Westminster inquiry

Russia’s Antarctic ‘prospecting’ links via SA warrant deeper scrutiny, hears UK Westminster inquiry
Russia’s Antarctic seismic vessel, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, sails into Cape Town on 3 April 2023. (Photo: Nic Bothma)

Responding to expert testimony and a Daily Maverick investigative series, senior UK officials on Wednesday insisted the Kremlin’s mineral explorer had not violated Antarctica’s mining ban. Labour and Tory MPs hit back, saying they were not so sure.

UK ministers and a top polar official were quizzed at a Westminster inquiry on Wednesday over Russia’s activities in Antarctica. The inquiry included questions on oil and gas “research” aboard vessels owned by the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, Rosgeo. 

Rosgeo has, since 2011, returned at least six times to the UK-claimed territory in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, where the explorer’s shipping diaries have chronicled maps of the sedimentary basins and their “oil and gas potential”.  

A Weddell Sea marine protected area, largely thwarted by Russia and China, has failed here since 2016. 

Under the mining ban to the Antarctic Treaty  — a pact of 29 decision-maker states governing the southernmost frontier — “mineral resource activities” are outlawed. “Scientific research” is allowed. 

The MP-led Westminster inquiry — launched in July to probe the UK’s Antarctic interests — repeatedly pressed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for its reaction to the controversial activities.  

“The committee was informed about some troubling current Russian activity and collection of seismic data, so that sounds more like prospecting minerals than collation of scientific data and research,” observed Anna McMorrin, a Labour MP on the polar audit sub-committee. 

McMorrin asked FCDO Under-Secretary David Rutley if he was “aware” of the Rosgeo vessels, under US sanctions since February, and how the UK was to respond at the annual Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting (ATCM) in India from May 20 to 30.

Read more in Daily Maverick: US sanctions target Russian ship surveying for Antarctic oil and gas via Cape Town

Rutley said the ban was “very clear” in its terms: “It prohibits the exploitation of mineral resources in the Antarctic, except for smaller scientific purposes. And that [ban] is indefinite in scope.”

The under-secretary defended Russia’s “repeated assurances” at ATCMs “that these activities are for scientific purposes”. 

Rutley referred to Russia’s “long-standing programme of surveying and mapping the geology of Antarctica, both on the land and on the seabed”, and said the treaty decision-maker state had reaffirmed the ban at the 2023 Helsinki ATCM. Russia’s reaffirmation of the existing ban was part of a US-led consensus effort that involved the other 28 Antarctic decision-makers, which included the UK and South Africa as founding signatories.   

Upholding a boomer ban? 

This reaffirmation push hoped to bust a tireless myth — that the ban expires with a whimper in 2048. Though the ban contains zero expiry date, and majority and consensus hurdles must be crossed before it can be lifted, observers worry it is not immune to expiry. 

A 1992 House of Representatives committee, at hearings on the Antarctic’s newly minted environmental laws, heard that the Bush Sr administration never wanted an unsinkable ban “in the event minerals would need to be obtained from Antarctica in the future”. Indeed, the ban was signed in 1991 with a “walkout-and-mine” option that may be triggered from 2048, which the US delegation at the time insisted on.

Given the global community’s improved understanding of climate change since Bush Sr’s days, and the roughly £35-million spent by the UK on Antarctic science each year, was it still happy to back his vision? We did not receive answers from the committee. 

Rutley, however, assured McMorrin that the UK would continue to monitor Russian movements in the Southern Ocean, though he stopped short of saying how this would be done.  

A sceptical McMorrin asked Rutley if he was “content to believe Russia when they say they’re just undertaking scientific action”. The Labour MP also quoted expert testimony to the committee, stressing that leading polar geopolitician Professor Klaus Dodds had flagged the “current Russian activity” and its possible “prospecting” links as “troubling”.

“There is a worry that Russia is collecting seismic data that could be construed to be prospecting rather than scientific research. And, if such, does this signal a potential threat to the permanent ban on mining,” asked Dodds, of Royal Holloway, University of London, “with knock-on implications for the integrity of the protocol in its entirety?”

The polar geopolitician’s testimony had isolated the potential “prospecting” matter as one among seven challenges for the UK and the treaty system. These included India and China as rising Antarctic powers, and the poorly regulated environmental impacts of tourism. 

Holding rule-breakers to account

Rutley, rather than addressing McMorrin’s suggestion that he was too eager to take Russian “assurances” at face value, countered that reaffirming the ban helped treaty states to hold Russia to account.

“They need to be held to account on this. As we all do, I mean, you know, this is a treaty that we’re all signed up to. It’s been hugely successful, one of the most successful treaties in our recent history, and all parties will want it to continue,” said Rutley. “So, we have to hold people to account.”

Tory MP James Gray, audit sub-committee chair, noted that Daily Maverick had contacted the committee. 

Unlike Gray’s suggestion, we did not ask the committee to respond to military concerns. We did, however, ask if the UK government was content to hand a geopolitical powder keg of possible 2048-plus mining tensions to today’s 21-year-olds, who will be middle-aged in this future climate-tested world. We also asked the committee to clarify the government’s position on the Russian activities in UK-claimed territory.

“They’re not saying it’s true necessarily,” Gray told Rutley, referring to our questions. “But it’s worth passing to you, and perhaps the foreign office would want to look into it, because they are extremely serious allegations about Russian malpractice.”

Framed by a rainbow, a jogger dashes along Cape Town’s Sea Point promenade on 3 April 2023, when Russia’s Antarctic seismic vessel, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, sailed into Cape Town after a season in Antarctica. (Photo: Nic Bothma)

Daily Maverick’s investigative series has uncovered substantial Antarctic oil and gas data collected aboard the Rosgeo vessels, with Russian sources claiming significant reserves in the Southern Ocean. South African and South American ports are used as launch pads. US sanctions have targeted Rosgeo’s Antarctic vessels, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky and the Professor Logachev, revealing unease about their operations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘It’s a moral disgrace’: Cape Town mayor spits fire as Russian seismic ship sails to Antarctica

In replies to Daily Maverick, Rosgeo has argued its work does not exceed “non-commercial geology” — yet the explorer’s polar subsidiary has made repeated assertions to the contrary. 

“Studying the geological structure and mineral resources of the Antarctic,” said the subsidiary’s 2017 report, “is of a geopolitical nature.” Produced nearly 20 years after the 1998 ban entered into force, this document said the research “ensures 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”.

‘No evidence’

Also questioned by McMorrin, UK Polar Regions head Jane Rumble said “there isn’t any evidence that would point to a breach of the treaty. You would need different equipment between surveying and actual exploitation, so that there isn’t a shift to it. But yes, we’re watching it very closely.

“And Russia has been tackled on this before and, in fact, has assured the ATCM on multiple occasions that this is a science programme, so we’ll keep it under review,” said Rumble. 

If Russia has delivered “multiple” assurances at ATCMs, it has not offered one since the 2002 Warsaw meeting — which noted “utilisation of the Antarctic mineral wealth may only occur in the indefinitely remote future”.  

A draft of “Information Paper IP-014”, tabled by Russia at Warsaw, 2002. The final version, less detailed than the draft published here, can be viewed on the treaty secretariat database.

Rumble, a seasoned official, was also caught flat-footed when asked how many stations the Kremlin maintained on the southern continent. (The Russian state polar science agency lists five permanent stations.) 

McMorrin urged Rutley to review the concerns and table them, “if necessary”, at the India ATCM.

Andrew Griffith, Minister of State in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, was among those questioned.

The evidence session, livestreamed for public viewing, also delved into broader issues shaping the UK’s Antarctic presence, including climate change in the warming region. DM

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