Mining in Antarctica

I’m somewhat surprised to see the NZ Government reported as the ones to place the thin wedge on exploitation of Ross Sea.

“New Zealand is set to veto any attempt to completely protect the world’s last unexploited ocean –  so a lucrative fishing industry can continue operating.

An official New Zealand document leaked to Fairfax reveals Wellington, backed by the US, does not want the whole 650,000 km2 Ross Sea declared a marine protected area (MPA), despite a 25-nation convention saying it is “of high global importance”.

Maps in the document written by the Ministry of Fisheries show a large area of the Ross Sea is excluded from a marine park. It means the fishing industry can keep taking toothfish, discovered by New Zealand in 1996, worth $18 million a year.”

What this does is lose the moral high ground for New Zealand when the inevitable conversations start about exploiting the other assets contained by the Ross Sea. I refer to, of course, oil.

South Korea, using a Lyttelton-based icebreaker, will next year begin building a $120 million base at Terra Nova Bay, 300km north of New Zealand’s Scott Base.

New Zealand’s claim to the Ross Dependency was suspended with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 which also demilitarised the continent.

That treaty expires in 2048 and with the Ross Sea suspected of being one of the world’s largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, pressure is already building over what will happen when the treaty expires. Korea’s patriotic base name, following China’s new bases with nationalistic titles, hints at possible territorial claims, according to a paper written by Sydney’s Lowy Institute national security fellow, Ellie Fogarty.

So let’s put this together:

  1. New Zealand has only moral not formal authority over the Ross Sea due to treaties that we have signed;
  2. We are pushing for the Ross Sea to be partially opened up to fishing so that we can earn $16 million per year;
  3. The Antarctica treaty and Madrid Protocol banning mining expire in 2048;
  4. The global powers will be different in 2048 than in 1959, particularly the rise of ASEAN countries who have no representation in Antarctica, though there is a nice slice of unclaimed territory;
  5. The Ross Sea is apparently where all of the oil is; and
  6. Oil is going to be incredibly precious in 2048.

I am not denying that we can’t environmentally safely find and obtain the oil from the Ross Sea in 2049. It would be a very expensive task, but entirely doable if the price of oil were high enough and the global demand required it.

The demand will be there, unless we get global green energy and fast. If wars are being fought now over oil, then what will the tensions will be like in 2048 without change?

New Zealand finds itself stuck in the middle of all of this – and part of me wants to advocate the expansion of the fishing boundary to accept precedent that this is New Zealand’s land to exploit (and our profits), but the better part of me says Stop – let’s keep Antarctica pure, and let’s keep that oil off-limits.

It’s time to learn more – and for that reason I’ve signed up to OurFarSouth, and am taking a month out in February/March 2012 to travel with a bunch of other disreputable characters to Antarctica, stopping by a few interesting places along the way.

These opportunities don’t come by that often, and I’d encourage anyone thinking about it to grab one of the last three places.

I’m going to help stir things up by presenting the case for mining in Antarctica –  a lone voice in the wilderness. Hopefully it will incite a great conversation and I won’t find myself playing in the water with Happy Feet.

Even better the trip, led by Gareth Morgan, includes a host of experts on the region and other folks that are committed to communicate the delights of deep South NZ to the country. It’s going to be great.

Published by Lance Wiggs