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Fears Over Russian Oil Grab in Antarctica Might be ‘Trolling’ to ‘Unsettle its Opponents’

News that a Russian polar survey vessel found a vast oil field off the coast of the British Antarctic Territory has caused significant alarm

A huge iceberg arch in the Gerlache strait of the Antarctica peninsula as seen from an expedition ship. Photo: Michael Greenfelder / Alamy
A huge iceberg arch in the Gerlache strait of the Antarctica peninsula as seen from an expedition ship. Photo: Michael Greenfelder / Alamy

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Last month, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee discussed reports that a Russian polar survey vessel named the Alexander Karpinsky had located a vast oil and gas field beneath the Weddell Sea, off the coast of the British Antarctic Territory.

The field allegedly contains “approximately 70 billion tons” of hydrocarbon resources – enough to meet world demand for the next fourteen years – and provoked alarming headlines, some suggesting an imminent resource grab by the Russian Federation in the Antarctic.

It also caused significant unease internationally, as many have interpreted Russia’s behaviour as prospecting, which is prohibited under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, to which Russia is a signatory.

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The Alexander Karpinsky is owned and operated by a company called RosGeo – a Kremlin-owned geological holdings company which describes itself as “the largest geological prospecting holding in Russia”. RosGeo’s stated aim in sending the Karpinsky to the Antarctic was to “assess the oil-and-gas bearing prospects of the Antarctic Shelf”.

But despite this, RosGeo maintained when questioned – by the South African paper The Daily Maverick that its activities in the Antarctic were “exclusively scientific in nature”, and that because “hydrocarbons are a natural component of the geological environment, […] it would be illogical to exclude them from consideration”.

Regardless of whether RosGeo’s activities amount to prospecting or not, it’s questionable whether the results of its ‘scientific’ surveys are credible.

Professor Adrian Hartley from the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Geology & Geophysics was sceptical of the claim that an oil field had been found using a seismic survey alone. 

“What I suspect they’ve done is used seismic data to image a geological structure beneath the seabed that could contain hydrocarbons, assumed it’s full of oil, and then made a rough calculation as to its volume. The problem is, you can’t calculate volumes unless you know the size and porosity of your reservoir so that’s a big issue with their numbers. There will be some massive assumptions in their figures. Structures like that can also just be full of water or gas,” he explained to Byline Times.

Another professor from the same department, Professor John Howell, made similar observations, saying: “This is massively overplayed and not something we need to be worried about, at least in the short term. Nothing has been discovered – oil is only discovered by drilling. Everything else is speculation and fantasy.”

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Professor Howell said there has been a fair amount of activity in the Southern Ocean but it’s so “far from anywhere that the logistics are really challenging and discoveries would have to be huge before they would be commercial”, so, there’s “very little appetite for this at present”.

“The Russians are much more interested in the Arctic on their doorstep, if they are active down there, it’s probably just trolling,” he added.

The inflated nature of RosGeo’s claims suggest that Russia’s true motivations may lie more in the realm of geopolitics than in geology. 

On the world stage, it’s not necessarily important whether Russia’s claims about finding oil are true. What’s important is that Russia’s behaviour is provocative, and that it threatens to violate the Antarctic Treaty System. In other words: this episode probably doesn’t signify that Russia intends on drilling in Antarctica in the near future, but that Russia is using its Antarctic activities to maintain its image as a world power, and to create discord among other nations while doing so.

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Professor Alan Hemmings, a professor of Antarctic governance at University of Canterbury New Zealand, told Byline Times: “Extracting hydrocarbons is still in the future, but the possibility (whether or not it eventually happens) is having consequences right now. States are making choices about what they will or will not countenance based upon keeping open future options. The Russian Federation may be mobilising its activity not only as part of future-proofing its own self-image as a resources superpower, but as a geopolitical device to unsettle its opponents.’

The problem with using Antarctica as a field in which to perform geopolitical manoeuvrings is that it creates competition between the states involved, thereby increasing the likelihood of an eventual confrontation. Russia’s prospecting – though innocuous – risks initiating a resource scramble, into which any number of nations could be drawn.

From afar, Antarctica might appear a barren, uninhabited desert. In reality, many nation states maintain a presence there in the form of polar research stations. The newest of these – Qinling Station – was completed earlier this year, and belongs to the Chinese Government.

A report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggested that Qinling “will possess a satellite ground station” which “will have inherent dual-use capabilities”. The report also speculated that the station could be used to gather signals intelligence and “collect telemetry data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities” in Australia and New Zealand. Although other nations operate greater numbers of stations, China has the fastest growing footprint in Antarctica having opened three since 2009.

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Although China’s behaviour in the region has been less overtly inflammatory than Russia’s, President Xi’s rhetoric shows that the CCP has long seen the Antarctic as strategically important.

In 2013, Xi stressed the significance of polar exploration as a way to “take advantage of ocean and polar resources”. The Chinese state has also expressed its desire to amend the Antarctic Treaty’s 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection, which is the document that specifically prohibits mining.

It will be possible to amend the Antarctic Treaty in 2048, provided a majority of all parties vote in favour of the proposed change. China – as ever, it seems – is taking the long view: working gradually and methodically over time to reach its objectives. For that reason, they could be a greater threat to the Antarctic Treaty than Russia.

China’s political power is also predicated on its economic clout, and its economy accounts for around 28% of world manufacturing output. As the world transitions away from fossil fuels, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which there’s a global scramble for the rare earth metals required to manufacture batteries, causing manufacturing-based economies to abandon the Antarctic Treaty for the sake of taking the lead.

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As to the question of an eventual conflict being fought over Antarctica, Professor Hemmings said the following: “Yes, I do fear that if we do not head off the business-as-usual and nationalism-infused interest in exploiting Antarctic hydrocarbons at some point, we risk further deterioration of great-power relations in Antarctica.

“There is nothing to preclude the Antarctic becoming yet another place that states fight in and over. Antarctica is happily the one place on earth where we have not had interstate warfare – but of itself that does not guarantee that this will continue to be the case into the future if we act foolishly. “

He added: “You’ll recall that an awful lot of wars have been fought over areas that from afar are written off as deserts”

The real challenge for the future will be maintaining a global consensus on Antarctica in an increasingly polarised geopolitical environment. Conflict – though at present unlikely – cannot be ruled out, no matter how successful the Antarctic Treaty has been since its inception. For now, it seems the wisest course of action is to remain watchful, monitor the situation, and not to serve the causes of other nations interested in disrupting the peace by overreacting to their tactics.


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