Our Burning Planet


Antarctic diplomatic spat spurs renewed push for unambiguous mining ban

Antarctic diplomatic spat spurs renewed push for unambiguous mining ban
South Africa’s scientific research station, Sanae IV, in the Norwegian-claimed territory of Dronning Maud Land, East Antarctica, February 2010. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

Earth’s last unmined frontier urgently needs an irreversible hydrocarbon ban for global security and environmental protection. Antarctica doesn’t have one.

After findings first brought to light by Daily Maverick in October 2021, Russia’s oil and gas seismic surveys in Antarctica have triggered a surge of global media attention.

Led through counter-claimed Antarctic and sub-Antarctic territory, as well as adjacent maritime areas, the surveys have also sparked diplomatic jitters involving Argentina, Chile, Russia and the UK. Chile President Gabriel Boric wielded his X account to tell possible interlopers to back off — just days before more than 50 states gathered for their annual Antarctic meeting in Kochi, India, which ends 30 May. On 23 May, Chile Defence Minister Maya Fernández and senior defence officials drew a line in the snow from the Antarctic Peninsula facing South America, with a message for any state with “crafty aspirations”, the Associated Press reports

Buenos Aires, according to Argentine media, was investigating the reports. A day after the Chile statements, Kremlin mineral explorer Rosgeo issued its own, arguing the surveys were legal science 101 — as supported by the mining ban under the Antarctic Treaty’s Madrid Protocol. Considered a linchpin of southern frontier geopolitics, this terse, 13-word ban outlaws “mineral resource activities”, but not “scientific research”.

Assuming old-school geology — such as tectonics — becomes a fig leaf for “prospecting”, what could possibly go wrong? 

  • Potential reserves in East Antarctica: Rosgeo has never retracted its February 2020 statement issued from Cape Town port, claiming it had found a potential 70 billion tons of “hydrocarbon resources” in the Southern Ocean’s East Antarctic sedimentary basins. (Converted as about 500 billion barrels of oil and gas.)
  • Deep interest in West Antarctica’s Weddell Sea: After Daily Maverick showed that Rosgeo had been to the Weddell Sea six times in 20112012201620172018 and 2022, and leading UK academia raised concerns in their own testimony, a UK Parliament inquiry into Britain’s Antarctic interests urged deeper investigation. Other global media outlets have claimed there are massive potential reserves in the Weddell Sea. The reality — at least in West Antarctica — is more prosaic. A survey is not proof of a reserve. Yet, six surveys do suggest deep interest in whatever may, or may not, be locked away in the Weddell Sea’s bowels.
  • Counter-claimed territory: The Weddell Sea is a geopolitical hot potato, under dormant territorial claims by Argentina, Chile and the UK. These are frozen by the Antarctic Treaty, which devotes the vast, ice-covered region to peaceful pursuits such as science and tourism. Throw possible oil and Putin’s Russia into the mix and — well — one gets a sense of how such a crucible may play out in the future of this warming wilderness. Australia, France, New Zealand and Norway are also claimant states. The US and Russia reserve the right to claims.

The great irony that seems to have got roundly lost in the “science” vs “no science” debate is that the US — the treaty depositary — placed Rosgeo’s Antarctic survey fleet under energy sanctions back in February already. Washington told Daily Maverick by email that the purpose for sanctioning Rosgeo’s Akademik Alexander Karpinsky vessel was unequivocal: “… to further constrain development of future energy and mining projects abroad”.

The sanctions only apply to US ports. And the South African government — which says all this is really just science and offers port facilities to the Karpinsky — is no stranger to receiving US-sanctioned vessels.

And yet, amid the snow and the fury, the sanctions and the denials, the geopolitical posturing and the gaslighting, a small group of academics have been shouting into the icy void. 

There is an elegant solution for all this, they say. 

And it does not call for the kind of chest-beating nationalism that asks anyone to, say, don kilts and play bagpipes to penguins.  

‘Rule out hydrocarbon extraction from Antarctica, by anybody, now’

“Whatever messages may or may not be sent to Russia, Chile is reminding the UK and Argentina (and no doubt reassuring its own people) that it too has claims and interests in the area,” Professor Alan Hemmings, an Antarctic governance academic at New Zealand’s Canterbury University, wrote on his LinkedIn page last week. “And so, through incitements to nationalism, the issue just spins further out of control, without any obvious effect on the initiating activity. What we need to do is definitely rule out hydrocarbon extraction from Antarctica, by anybody, now.”

A recognised world expert who participated in the 1990s ban negotiations in Viña del Mar, Chile as a member of the New Zealand delegation, Hemmings wrote: “Russian prospecting, which shouldn’t be happening at all, has been going on for years.”

There is another ironic motif forever wending its way through the minerals quagmire in “ground zero for runaway climate change” — as Professor Klaus Dodds, a geopolitics academic at Royal Holloway, University of London, describes Antarctica in a new paper. It involves the Bush Sr administration, and the irony deepens every time an Antarctic Treaty diplomat and their public relations entourage reinforce a wall of gaslighting that suggests the ban is unsinkable.  

In force since 1998, the 1991-signed ban, known as Article 7, has zero expiry date


In the other three languages of the Madrid Protocol — French, Russian and Spanish — one might say: “pas de date d’expiration”; “нет срока годности”; and “sin fecha de caducidad”, respectively. Yet, the Bush Sr administration admitted in 1992 evidence at a House of Representatives hearing that it refused to sign an unsinkable ban. So what we have today is a piece of law that, after crossing tough hurdles, can be changed or possibly reversed after 2048. It offers a walkout-and-mine option as demanded by the US. 

A 27 June 1991 newspaper spread laying bare the US campaign to include an option that, under certain conditions after 2048, would allow a state to abandon the ban and mine the Antarctic legally. Written by Professor Alan Hemmings for the Dominion, a subsumed New Zealand broadsheet (today The Post).

Even the act of calling for a 2048-plus review — as the current diplomatic fracas some 25 years ahead of that deadline luridly shows — is likely to be hotly contested, requiring crucial bandwidth that might be better used to deal with a melting continent pouring into the ocean.  

Or perhaps the status quo stays frozen. Under the second scenario, we assume the ice refuses to yield resources and, in the ensuing quarter century, or the infinite review period after 2048, there will be no meaningful advances to mine oil and gas in these remote regions. 

There is a third: acknowledging that we foresee a fluctuating curve of geopolitical possibilities within the next 100 years, but who cares about anyone who is alive four generations from now?    

Turn off the ‘twinkling green light’

In 2022, Hemmings co-authored a peer-reviewed proposal published in the journal GIGA Focus outlining how to immediately implement oil and gas blocks that can never be demolished.

Written with Dr Patrick Flamm, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, a  requested cut-down version of this paper was tabled by the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (Asoc) at the 2022 Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting (ATCM) in Berlin. Remarkably and unusually, the prominent environmental group previously revealed that their 17 in-person delegates had not actually introduced the paper at the meeting — guaranteeing that it was not discussed. Though 70 billion tons of oil and gas would outstrip global annual oil consumption of some 37 billion barrels by roughly 15 times, the paper was not acknowledged by the session, apart from being listed in the meeting’s final report.

“A possible review in around 25 years leaves a ‘twinkling green light’ for possible future mineral resource activities, and thus is already having effect in the present — howsoever the future around 2048 in fact develops,” Hemmings and Flamm argue in their paper. “At a time when critical discussion and planning around avoiding even worse climate scenarios is orientated (30 years out) towards 2050, it would be ridiculous to wait until 2048 before making a definitive policy choice in relation to commencing hydrocarbon extraction from the Antarctic. We should not kick the can down the road on such a decision.”

According to their vision, “states should explicitly unilaterally commit now to never commence hydrocarbon extraction in Antarctica. This decision should be taken by individual states and by the decision-making Antarctic Treaty consultative parties as a community, now.” 

The authors, however, do not advocate the monumental task of forever eliminating all types of mineral extraction. “The project here is one of a narrower commitment to not commencing a subset of this — extraction of Antarctic hydrocarbons,” they explain. In other words, by focusing on hydrocarbon resources — the building blocks for oil and gas — the proposal can directly target the most pressing threat.

About 60% of proven global hydrocarbon reserves “must remain unexploited” they write. “Given this, there is a strong case for never initiating hydrocarbon extraction in Antarctica.”

In a world where the likes of US presidential election candidate Donald Trump has been fuelled by fantasies of buying chunks of the polar regions, the proposal is about safeguards against global suicide.

An explicit prohibition of hydrocarbon extraction would not only support critical global climate goals but, they argued, also reduce geopolitical tensions by neutralising a major point of contention.

Transforming the ban: a legal and diplomatic roadmap

Though the proposal was written for the 2022 German ATCM, there is still an opportunity to raise it at the India ATCM running until Thursday — and “codify” its straightforward pathway at the Italy ATCM in 2025.  

“This position should be codified at one of the next ATCMs as a legally binding Measure,” the authors explain, citing the technical term for a legally enforceable agreement.

The relevant ministries, they suggest, “need to be directed to operationalise this policy, with a timeline that includes a concerted effort at seeing it happen” at a forthcoming ATCM. The process should begin immediately, engaging all treaty parties to build the required consensus, something the treaty’s 29 decision-maker states have failed to achieve in recent years.

“A strengthening of consensus on the mining prohibition through a revitalisation of high-level diplomacy seems much needed,” they advise. “Reinforcing” the ban by focusing on hydrocarbon resources would not only provide a “promising pathway” for regaining critical consensus, but serve as a “signal for global cooperative climate action”.

Dr Marcelo Leppe, at the time director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, arrives at ATCM45 in Helsinki, Finland, on Friday, 2 June 2023. Leppe hoped climate commitments would materialise through the Helsinki Declaration. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

Implementing a “forever ban on hydrocarbon extraction” faces a number of challenges, they concede. Heavyweight intervention from the higher-ups, rather than the ATCM’s usual mid-level public servants, is paramount. 

However, the Antarctic Treaty is “itself one of the most celebrated examples of global cooperation arising during the Cold War. Cooperation is possible in areas of common, existential interest, or solely as a ‘confidence-building measure’ to manage out-of-control rivalries.”

MPAs won’t save the planet

“Accusations have arisen from some Western observers that China and Russia are deliberately blocking initiatives within the Antarctic Treaty System: a recurrent friction point is around the designation of Antarctic MPAs”, one of which is proposed for the Weddell Sea, the authors observe. 

Yet, MPAs — while certainly important — are a regional issue, they argue. Besides, these marine protections can only be resolved at annual meetings of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a separate framework under the treaty. Antarctica’s potential hydrocarbon reserves, on the other hand, are an immediate existential question of global, intergenerational consequence, and fall squarely in the areas of responsibility under the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol which the annual ATCMs are supposed to address. 

“The issue here stands at the intersection of international relations and the global environment and revolves around the central matter of coordinated responses to climate change.”

A screenshot of the US-sanctioned Akademik Alexander Karpinsky’s position in the Baltic Sea on 28 May 2024. The Karpinsky was returning from another season of “marine geological-geophysical” investigations in the Southern Ocean. (Screenshot: Marinetraffic.com)

The Netherlands annual meeting in 2028 marks not only the 50th ATCM, but 20 years until the ban can be altered. Indeed, next year Italy faces a likely ignominious anniversary — 20 years since treaty states adopted an environmental liability annex without bringing it into force.  

For the low-lying Netherlands, or any state facing potentially catastrophic rising sea levels, Hemmings and Flamm have a simple message.

“Foregoing something that has not yet begun,” they note, “is (relatively) easier and ‘low-cost’ compared to commencing an unsustainable activity and subsequently seeking to halt it.” 

They add: “Collective proactive response to a common danger in that most internationalised and scientifically focused region, the Antarctic, should be obvious.” 

Hemmings told Daily Maverick: “The biggest challenges facing humanity are responding to climate change and preventing geopolitical competition from leading to warfare. We make a contribution to alleviating both if we can lift our gaze above the trivia that presently provide the slim pickings at ATCMs. Banning Antarctic hydrocarbon extraction now not only contributes to the imperative of getting off the global hydrocarbon habit, but removes a key driver of great power competition in Antarctica.” DM

Read the full open-access paper for free: “Now and Never: Banning Hydrocarbon Extraction in Antarctica Forever” is co-authored by Professor Alan Hemmings and Dr Patrick Flamm, and published in the journal GIGA Focus

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