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Oil and ice: petroleum extraction in Antarctica

By Scott Joblin - posted Monday, 6 September 2010

This year marks the 50th year of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) - the international body charged with maintaining the ecological and political sanctity of the Antarctic continent. Up to now the overall body has presented as a remarkable achievement, especially when one considers that the institution has managed to not only negotiate the elevated tensions of the Cold War but also the global uncertainty that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet despite this success, the long-term viability of the ATS appears to be increasingly under threat due to the recent emergence of certain specific challenges that may push the organisation to the brink.

One of the major challenges facing the ATS relates to the potential initiation of regional petrochemical extraction. Currently, all extraction related activities are prohibited under the Madrid Protocol of 1991, an annex of the main ATS treaty: however, despite the existence of this agreement, interest in Antarctica’s resources is climbing and amendments are urgently needed if the arrangement is to continue to be effective.


Commercially, Antarctica is a location of interest due to the belief that it is rich in petrochemical resources. To date, simple economics and high overheads have protected the region from any form of prospecting, yet with the effects of resource scarcity now being felt, such protections are becoming ineffective as petrochemical prices rise.

In 2006, the late Dr Ali Samsam Bakhtiari stated (PDF 332KB) that he believed oil prices would need to be in the vicinity of US$200 to US$300 per barrel to justify the initiation of Antarctic petrochemical extraction. With oil peaking at US $147.27 per barrel less than three years ago, such a statement sets an interesting precedent for the future.

Apprehensions surrounding the future of the ATS and the Madrid Protocol are well-known and in 2008, a UN organised international experts symposium backed calls for reform stating, “a new co-ordinated international set of rules to govern commercial and research activities in both polar regions is urgently needed to reflect new environmental realities and to temper pressure building on these fragile ecosystems … pressure on the Earth’s unique and highly vulnerable polar areas is mounting quickly and an internationally-agreed set of rules built on new realities appears to be needed by many observers.”

While no signatories have presently stated their intention to contravene the Madrid Protocol, certain nations have demonstrated an interest. At the XXIV meeting of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in 2001, a Russian working paper revealed a government prospecting ship had collected data on regional oil and gas reserves, an act that flouts the basic anti-prospecting tenants of the agreement. While numerous excuses were provided once the content of the paper was noted, such a gaffe denotes the willingness of some parties to disregard aspects of the protocol for the sake of potential economic advantage.

Under international law, the ATS sits in a weird position as it is not fully accepted as a recognised international institution. This becomes even more complex when it is noted that the environmental protections provided by Madrid are in direct contravention to the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS III).

In UNCLOS, the preamble states, “that the area of the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as its resources, are the common heritage of mankind,” hence meaning that all interested parties possess the right to access the high-sea resources of the region in direct contradiction to the provisions of the ATS.


With UNCLOS possessing a far greater level of international legitimacy, it appears that the ATS could do little if a nation decided to exploit the loophole and initiate regional resource extraction. Similarly, how this agreement applies to the members of the ATS is unknown and may offer a potential opt-out loophole down the line.

While it should be noted that nations are required under UNCLOS to obtain clearance from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) before any actions can be undertaken, the conditions of the ISA are far more permissive than the ATS and how the body would respond to such a direct challenge to its legitimacy is unknown.

Whereas it should be noted that no one is calling for the scrapping of the Madrid Protocol, since the agreement establishes a solid foundation from which to work, amendments are desperately needed in order to clarify the present jurisdictional concerns.

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About the Author

Scott Joblin holds a Master of Diplomacy and a Master of Strategic Affairs from the Australian National University and is presently applying for a PhD on the future of the Antarctic Treaty System.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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