Oil-hungry nations eying Antarctica’s reserves
By Ben Sandilands
THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA
Tuesday, Jul 25, 2006,Page 9
The specter of a massive oil rush in Antarctica stole the spotlight from melting ice sheets at a recent summit on polar research in Hobart, the capital city of the Australian island of Tasmania.
At first, all attention was on predictions — based on global warming — of a 6m rise in sea levels from the melting of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet within a few hundred years, and on a possible return of trees, for the first time in 34 million years, to the milder fringes of the main continent this century.
That was until the Iranian authority on oil reserves, Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, told delegates to the meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research "there is only one frontier left, and that is Antarctica."
He told them that the protections given by the Antarctic Treaty’s 1993 Madrid Protocol, which reserved the continent of ice for "peace and science" were meaningless.
Bakhtiari said the real power was held by the energy companies.
"The day they decide, they will go in," he said. "They are very powerful, because crude oil makes the world turn around."
Bakhtiari’s comments followed his widely reported claim that remaining Middle East oil reserves were about half the amount publicly claimed by those controlling the resource, and that oil production has peaked and will decline sharply just as the soaring demands of India and China really kick in.
Bakhtiari’s comments fuelled simmering pressure from the Australian government’s back benchers to become more aggressive about planning to exploit all of the mineral resources believed to exist in Antarctica’s vast white wilderness.
Australia claims 42 percent of Antarctica as its sovereign territory, as well as most of the vast Southern Ocean between its mainland and the ice continent.
When maverick coalition Senator Barnaby Joyce openly called for Australia to make a pre-emptive move on the southern polar riches earlier this year, he was disowned by the environmental minister, Senator Ian Campbell, who stuck to the official line that the country would unwaveringly honor its Antarctica Treaty obligations to refrain from any activities other than scientific research.
Joyce is unrepentant.
He says "there’s gold, there’s iron ore, there’s coal and there’s huge fish resources. We can’t fool ourselves that other countries won’t move in on them."
The Australian Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, says Joyce is right for all the wrong reasons.
"The treaty is worthy but unenforceable," Brown says. "The government is refusing to take any meaningful steps to stop the Japanese killing hundreds of whales for scientific purposes in the Antarctic waters we claim as our economic zone and it will give in on oil like it is doing with uranium exports to other countries the moment it is asked to by America."
"We’ve already seen the Americans drop hints about researching, as in drilling, for hydrocarbons in the sedimentary basins known to exist off the Antarctic coast," he says.
"The Southern Ocean is absolutely critical to the global environment as a source of nutrient-rich cool water currents, and any drilling accident could have far more terrible consequences than the mishaps we have seen in Alaskan waters for example," he says.
The fragility of the Antarctic Treaty is a sensitive topic for Australia. No member nation can veto anything, and can do anything it wishes within the territorial claims of countries, including Australia, without any notification or request for permission.
The French destroyed a penguin rookery by building a rock runway in Australian territory, against scientific advice. The Russians are planning to drill a controversial bore hole into Lake Vostok, a vast uncontaminated pool of water beneath 4km of ice, against a chorus of international and protests. India has decided to build a base right in the middle of a special sanctuary supposed to protect some of the few open-water lakes on the edge of the continent.
The treaty, which is little more than a list of good intentions, is also powerless to stop non-treaty states from doing anything, including drilling for oil tomorrow.
Industry estimates of the oil price at which a large off-shore oil field in the iceberg-choked environment of the Southern Ocean would become viable range between US$150 to US$200 a barrel.
With the price of oil approaching US$80, tripling in just over two years, in this case, "tomorrow" might really mean tomorrow.