Antarctic oil puts tensions on the powers

These days the 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), an event taking place until May 30 in the Indian city of Kochi and in which it was expected to talk about cooperation, science, climate change and tourism at the South Pole (an activity that is the focus of the meeting this year after the growth in visits after the pandemic). However, what promised to be one more technical dialogue on the future of the Pole has been clouded by the shadow of Russia's possible aspirations in Antarctica. A few days ago the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported on the action taken by several British parliamentarians before their government for fear of possible Moscow oil operations on the continent. All after learning that “the Russian geological agency has just validated the studies carried out in 2020 by the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky ship on the availability of thousands of tons of oil and gas buried beneath the frozen platform,” the newspaper reports.

The news of the discovery has gone around the world because the new deposit would contain some 511 billion barrels of oileither; ten times more than what has been exploited so far in the North Sea. However, “the figure is falsified. The amount is totally speculative. Already in 2020, the Russian service stated that a realistic forecast would be 10 billion barrels. What there has been are seismic explorations. That means that they have done sound tests and that these indicate that the area is sedimentary (the first key to there being oil), but until you drill a hole you don't know what there really is. For oil to form, it needs a sedimentary soil and a rock that acts as a seal on top. Only with exploration do you not know if the oil has been formed or if it was formed but has migrated,” comments Antonio Turiel, researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences of the CSIC. Furthermore, he says even if these were the real figures, “that crude It would only serve to cover global demand for about 14 years. Every year, on average, between 5,000 and 10,000 million barrels are found in new fields. In any case, very far from the 36,000 that we consume every year in the world. These types of advertisements are usually repeated and only serve to hide the fact that we have not found what we consume for years.

On the other hand, even if there are verified resources, is their exploitation possible? «If someone tried it, they would probably get ruined, because it is not easy to work in such extreme conditions or machinery that can withstand, for example, strong winds, with low temperatures the diesel freezes… It is a protected area, among other things, because it is difficult to carry out any activity there, even a war, and besides, what need is there? “Russia has one of the largest fossil reserves in the world, its demand is covered and it continues to export,” concludes Turiel.

A geopolitical problem

The fact that the information comes from an English medium may seem like a small thing, but it is not so much if you take into account the reserves found that are also located in the area of ​​influence of the United Kingdom; the Weddell Sea, also claimed by Argentina and Chile. There is an Antarctic treaty signed since 1959, which guarantees peaceful coexistence and scientific cooperation on this continent. 12 nations signed, but nine have territorial claims over the region. «The treaty is the only balancing solution; establishes Antarctica as a place for peace and science and was later complemented by the Madrid protocol (1991). It is, so to speak, something similar to the establishment of a natural park, the Protocol becomes like the management plan for this park. It was born just to stop flirtations with possible extraction or exploitation of raw materials. In that protocolThey regulate activities such as the arrival of people, that is, tourism, or fishing. These activities are not prohibited,” says Ana Justel, professor in the Department of Mathematics at the UAM and researcher and coordinator together with Professor Antonio Quesada of the Microairpolar project within the framework of the Spanish Antarctic Campaign 2023-24.

In fact, the exploitation of fishing resources is often a source of dispute. In 2023, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCRVM) held a special meeting to try to resolve a stalemate, which dates back to 2017, in the creation of more marine protected areas in Antarctica. China and Russia stopped any action in this sense demanding more scientific data to justify the decision. It is precisely East Antarctica, which includes the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula, that are proposed as special protection zones, “spaces that are fragile to the climate crisis and affected by massive fishing. The presence of sea ice is fundamental for the life cycle of Antarctic krill, since it is a basic species for the development of the rest of the oceanic species,” the Efe agency said in a chronicle of that meeting. Furthermore, “is a treaty enough to ensure that the status quo will never be broken? In the end, the treaty does not matter whether it is ratified or not. Actually, who is going to prohibit anything? This is the same thing that happens with other agreements such as the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, etc. In this case there may be an escalation of geopolitical tension… It will end up happening or there will be a more or less peaceful distribution between the parties. China is taking positions in Patagonia, in theory thinking for commercial purposes, but also for military issues. When the conflict in Ukraine and Gaza ends we will see what happens,” says Fernando Cocho, Intelligence analyst and expert in intelligence methodology.

The Arctic Mirror

The geopolitical tension is so high that any movement on the international board raises suspicions, especially if it comes from Russia… or China. Furthermore, in the world's other frozen region, the Arctic, there has been much movement since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war. It is not in vain that it is estimated that important reserves of natural gas and strategic minerals are hidden here. In 2022 Putin stated: “There is no Arctic without Russia nor Russia without the Arctic” and since 2020 Putin has a development strategy for the place at least until 2035. In addition to military settlements (several from the times of the Cold War have been recovered and new ones have been opened), Putin encourages the population to settle near the border with the North Pole and takes advantage of the loss of ice to export fossils despite the sanctions. Specifically, China, a country that is also increasing its presence in the area. The maritime route is also becoming an alternative to Suez, especially for the 90% of Chinese goods that travel by sea.

It is precisely “the thaw that differentiates the situation here with respect to Antarctica, in addition to the sovereignty of several countries,” Justel recalls. «The presence of Russia is dominant compared to the rest that have very little land. The Arctic already has open trade routes and if more hydrocarbon exploitation is not carried out it is perhaps because it is not the best international time to do so, with the 2030 agenda on the table,” concludes Cocho.