Antarctic Treaty Protocol On Environmental Protection Bans Fossil Fuel & Mineral Exploitation In Antarctica Until 2048 — How Much Longer Will The Treaty Hold?

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In 1998, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, popularly known as the Madrid Protocol, entered into effect following negotiation between various countries over the preceding years. This protocol effectively banned all mining and fossil fuel development in Antarctica until 2048.

The enactment of the protocol followed on the much earlier suspension of new land claims on the continent back in 1959. Notably, Norway’s government seemed to disregard this in 2015 when it redefined its earlier claim so as to include more territory.

Previous to that suspension, a large number of countries with land nowhere near the continent claimed territory in Antarctica in a sort of neo-colonial land grab. While many people like to point out the example of international cooperation in the areas of research and conservation on the continent since then as an argument against future “development,” the reality is that budgets for such activities are usually quite low (PR spectacles aside).

Alternately, the exploitation of bordering fisheries has remained constant in recent decades (whether legally or illegally) — so I’ll claim skepticism to the idea that stalled development to date has been the result of high-minded ideals. What seems far more likely is simply that such development has been either impossible and/or economical.

That’s a situation that won’t last forever though. While the coal reserves of Antarctica don’t seem likely to ever be commercially developed in any real way (possibly just to partially run local operations at some indefinite future fate, but even that may not ever prove economical), the offshore oil and gas reserves of the continent are a different matter.

While such development would seemingly not be an easy or cheap matter due to stormy seas, icebergs, etc., it’s certainly not the case that it wouldn’t prove economical at some point in the mid-term, if our dependence on oil isn’t greatly reduced over the next few decades (and as oil prices continue rising again). One could certainly make the argument that such development could theoretically already be done at a lower price-point than the tar sands development in Canada is being done at.

Arctic oil and gas resources make for an easier target, for numerous reasons (calmer oceans, fewer icebergs, much closer proximity to large oil firm strongholds, etc.), so from that angle such development doesn’t seem imminent. From the perspective of countries that are effectively shut out of the Arctic, though, development of Antarctic offshore oil and gas reserves could make sense. Who would those countries be? Perhaps China? Perhaps South American countries? South Africa?

No obvious hits come to mind, but the situation is ambiguous — especially as concerning China. While China has embraced renewable energy tech to a degree that few other countries have, the reality remains that it is still dependent upon large amounts of fossil fuels for the running of its industrial, agricultural, and energy sectors. This reality, based on current trends, is likely to persist for numerous further decades — unless actions and real-world plans much more aggressive than have been revealed to date are pursued.

As we reported previously, a recent white paper issued by the government of China noted an intention to cooperate further with Russia in the Arctic region in the near-future, with regard to trade-route development and maintenance and resources. That paper interestingly referred to the creation of a “Polar Silk Road,” and referred to the Northwest Passage as an international straight — meaning that the country both rejects the idea of the Canadian government that it is internal waters, and that of the US government that it is territorial waters. That being the case — the clear interests in regional resources — what has the country’s government been thinking as of late when it comes to Antarctica’s resources? It has remained mum to date, so there’s no way to say.

As it stands, a large number of different countries claim land in Antarctica, but it should be realized that the treaty was only signed by 12 countries, and that it is certainly not recognized by all countries nowadays.

With all of that in mind, I have to wonder then, if the Madrid Protocol will truly hold until 2048 when it is expected to expire? Would it survive the outbreak of a large war between major powers? Are the potentially valuable offshore oil and gas reserves in the Ross Sea truly not going to be developed in just the next few decades?

I profess a high degree of skepticism that the treaty will hold through 2048, although much seems to now depend upon the path to be taken by China’s now uncontested “leader” (as well as what the backroom figures that take part in important decisions think). The country does seem to be aiming to exploit the resources of the Arctic region in cooperation Russia (and in competition with Norway and others), and with that being the case, why not the resources of Antarctica as well?

Image by US Department of Defense

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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