UK ministers face a grilling as Russian ship heads back from Antarctic ‘prospecting’ push | Polarjournal
Russia’s Antarctic seismic vessel, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, sails into Cape Town on 3 April 2023 as flags from Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace volunteers and other protesters line the harbour. (Photo: Nic Bothma)

An MP-led inquiry at Westminster on Wednesday is poised to question ministers over the Kremlin’s oil and gas search aboard a US-sanctioned Antarctic ship first reported by Daily Maverick. Russian government records show the vessel’s owner, state mineral explorer Rosgeo, is deeply interested in polar hydrocarbons that may be buried within claimed British Antarctic territory.

A Westminster inquiry on Wednesday, May 8, will probe Russia’s Antarctic oil and gas interests, according to a UK government advisory.

The final MP-led evidence session in the inquiry, launched in July to audit the UK’s Antarctic interests, is expected to be publicly livestreamed at 2.15pm GMT.

The session will also quiz Jane Rumble, OBE, head of the UK government’s Polar Regions Department, about climate impacts in the icy, warming region and how Russia’s war in Ukraine may be stoking wider diplomatic tension there.

Andrew Griffith, Minister of State in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology; and David Rutley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, will face their own questions from the polar audit sub-committee.

Russia’s Akademik Alexander Karpinsky vessel — targeted by US sanctions in February — is currently heading home to St Petersburg after doing “geological” surveys in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean in the recent summer field season. The airgunned seismic vessel, which often sails via Cape Town, has returned via the South American port of Montevideo, Uruguay, and is owned by Rosgeo, the Kremlin’s mineral explorer.

The mining ban to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty forbids “mineral resource activities”, but allows “scientific research”. Yet, since 2011, Rosgeo’s surveys have returned to a region claimed by the UK as “British Antarctic Territory” no fewer than six times to study the “oil and gas potential” of the Weddell Sea — where an MPA proposal has failed since 2016, largely due to Russian and Chinese opposition. It was beneath these very waters that the Endurance wreck, captained by the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, was found in 2022.

In his own testimony to the inquiry, the leading polar geopolitician Professor Klaus Dodds has flagged the “current Russian activity” and its possible “prospecting” links as “troubling”.

Indeed, Dodds, a recognised world expert at Royal Holloway, University of London, noted potential “prospecting” operations among top five challenges that could test the UK’s activities in the treaty region. The geopolitician also flagged China and India as emerging polar power players.

First published in October 2021, Daily Maverick’s investigative series has documented 4.5 million km² in Antarctic oil and gas data collected aboard the Karpinsky. Cited by Dodds in his oral testimony, our reports have also documented several Russian state sources claiming that the Southern Ocean’s basins hold 500 billion barrels (70 billion tons) of oil and gas.

No recoverability estimates were offered, but the Kremlin has never stopped mapping Antarctica’s oil and gas since the ban entered into force in 1998, arguing the work is allowable “scientific research”.

Both Rosgeo’s Antarctic geology vessels, including the Professor Logachev, have been hit with US sanctions. The sanctions aim to constrain Russian energy production — in effect making the US the first treaty state to acknowledge the Karpinsky and Logachev as more than research vessels.

The sanctions only apply to US ports, but shipping agents in South Africa or elsewhere fearing secondary sanctions may refuse to receive the ships.

The US initiated the treaty as a tension-defusing Cold War pact aimed at devoting the Antarctic to peaceful activities such as science and tourism. Considered a benchmark diplomatic coup, the treaty freezes territorial claims asserted before 1959 by seven states, including the UK.

Though these territories cannot be owned while the indefinite treaty is in force, they are of well-established, manifest geopolitical importance to the historic claimant states themselves. As it is, the UK’s claim overlaps substantially with Argentina’s, with which territorial tensions in the region at large continue to simmer.

To complicate things, Chile also maintains a claim in this contested West Antarctic wedge. And while the US and Russia never made any claims, they reserve the right to do so, therefore the Kremlin’s controversial insistence on probing possible hydrocarbons here may at some point be precisely the red rag that the treaty’s 29 decision-making states have sought not to flaunt.

“The Committee should recognise that the Antarctic policy environment is arguably at its most challenging since the late 1980s and early 1990s,” Dodds testified, “when Antarctic Treaty consensus broke down over a disagreement regarding the future regulation of Antarctic minerals activities.”

Despite the severe implications of mining the Antarctic’s potential oil and gas, treaty states have yet to go further than their 2023 annual meeting effort, which simply reaffirmed a changeable ban with a “walkout-and-mine” option after 2048.

Strenuous hurdles must be crossed before triggering the “walkout-and-mine” option. Yet, Professor Alan Hemmings — a Canterbury University governance expert and BAS station commander during the 1982 Falklands-Malvinas conflict — has co-authored peer-reviewed legal solutions for an immediate ban that can never be changed to allow oil and gas extraction.

These ideas are filed on the treaty website, but they do not seem to have gained traction among the treaty decision-maker states, which will conduct their annual session in India from May 20 to 30 when the Karpinsky is still at sea. The US sanctions also formally kick into force on May 23.

Immediate answers to our queries have not been received from the UK authorities.

Tiara Walters, Daily Maverick

This article was originally published by Daily Maverick and was written by Tiara Walters, who spend her time as a journalist covering Antarctic governance, geopolitics and other polar issues.

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