Antarctica: agreeing on principles, depending on price
9 May 2013|

Guest editor Anthony Bergin

Emperor Penguin, Atka Bay, Weddell Sea, AntarcticaThe issue of Antarctic geologically based resources hasn’t been discussed seriously for decades and for two good reasons.  There’s been no serious interest by industry for sensible economic reasons. We’ve also seen the introduction of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol), with a moratorium on mining that commenced in 1991.

The United States Bureau of Mines introduced a system some years ago of classification for mineral deposits employing both geological and economic criteria. The classification has three main categories – economic, marginally economic, and sub-economic.  Antarctic mineral occurrences are taken properly as sub-economic and classed simply as ‘mineral occurrences’. Polar Prospects: A Minerals Treaty for Antarctica : UNT Digital Library

But there’s been some changes in the last couple of decades that may well alter the equations in the near future. The changes are mainly in technology, rendering identification and extraction potentially easier. Economics remains, as it’s always been, the greatest deterrent, unless there’s a specific non-economic reason to extract.

What’s constant is that many mineral resource types will be absent: heavy mineral beach sands, and residual deposits such as bauxite that are surficial, soft and easily removed by ice. Likewise, deep leads, where ice has gouged them out and dumped them in the sea. Also, superficial gossans, (a broad surface weathering product over an ore body) as indicators of subsurface ore bodies are absent.

But for all that, geophysical survey methods have evolved in leaps and bounds with electrical, seismic and space-centred methods much more sensitive and able to penetrate where it was impossible a couple of decades ago. It’s possible that, as climate change takes it toll on Antarctica, more ground around the margins will be exposed and subject to examination.

Even now, there’re places, such as the Tryne Islands in the Vestfold Hills, where rock associations and some mineral associations are such that, if they occurred in other continents, would lead to interest by companies.

In the same vein (to pun), copper staining on rocks near the old station of Wilkes in the Windmill Islands, would bear further study. Another possible resource lies in narrow, deep channels such as the Svenner Channel in eastern Prydz Bay.

But the greatest potential change is offshore. In the 1980s, offshore exploration was limited to about 200 m water depth which, in the Antarctic context, meant exploration relatively close to shore in the densest sea ice zone. If resources were found, any completion facility would have to be prepared for disruption by sea ice and icebergs. That’s changed dramatically.

Drilling is now routinely conducted in water depths to 1500 m or more, and this allows facilities much farther offshore, into regions of reduced sea ice. Further, deeper water allows deployment of seafloor-mounted production facilities that are much less likely to be affected by icebergs. Scientific drilling by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program has shown how quickly (scientific) drill ships can disconnect from the seafloor in the case of advancing icebergs. Industry could adapt quickly, (if it was economically worthwhile).

The question then is what sort of resources would be of interest? The region along the Antarctic margin between approximately Cape Adare and the Windmill Islands has had a geological history akin to that of the poorly explored southern margin of Australia. While poorly known, it’s likely to be a better source for natural gas than liquid hydrocarbons.

Exploration along the southern Australian margin will give better indications of the Antarctic potential. The world now has so much natural gas that it doesn’t know what to do with it. Add to this the recent Japanese experience in accessing seafloor gas hydrates, and the need to explore Antarctica recedes further.

As always, the biggest considerations are economics and strategic: if there’s a need based on economics or a national strategic consideration (even if strictly uneconomic), exploration could proceed in the Antarctic region now.

The Madrid Protocol currently forbids exploration and exploitation of Antarctic geologically based resources (while allowing biologically based fishing) for 50 years from 1991. The Madrid Protocol is an international agreement. But there’s a long history of such agreements lasting for shorter periods than initially intended. ‘No’  can become ‘yes’, although any process for review of the ban would require a massive shifts in global attitudes to the Antarctic.

It’s hard to have a firm position on resource exploitation in Antarctica. For now, the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) is subject to an unnecessary moratorium—unnecessary because only ‘mineral occurrences’ are known to date and economics is still the greatest barrier to exploitation. If someone does discover something of value (strategic or otherwise) and wants to extract it using some of the developments in mining technology since CRAMRA was negotiated, a way will be found. Ultimately, resources of sufficient strategic or economic value will be exploited for a resource hungry world. International agreements can always be re-negotiated.

Patrick G. Quilty is an Honorary Research Professor with the School of Earth Sciences and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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