Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

South Pole a cold mine in waiting

Ahead of John Key's visit to Antarctica this week, Isaac Davison looks at pressure to plunder the continent.

With 98 per cent of Antarctica's land covered by ice 4km thick, there are still obstacles to mining other than the Antarctic Treaty.  Photo / Supplied
With 98 per cent of Antarctica's land covered by ice 4km thick, there are still obstacles to mining other than the Antarctic Treaty. Photo / Supplied

Reddish-brown smears on Antarctica's massive white canvas are a hint of a potentially troubling future for the continent.

The blots on the stark landscape are caused by stores of iron ore under the ice. Copper, coal, chromium and natural gas are also believed to be distributed across Antarctica, and huge oil deposits are thought to be held under its seabed.

Mining is strictly banned under the Antarctic Treaty, but many experts feel that the policy will come under increasing pressure - some even say it is inevitable that the rule will be overturned within decades.

A consensus approach to policy-making in the Antarctic meant that all 28 consulting countries - including New Zealand - would have to approve of resource exploration for it to go ahead.

Antarctic policy expert Anne-Marie Brady said that while a consensus seemed highly unlikely at present, depletion in global energy supply and China's hunger for resources could place pressure on the mining ban.

"We don't know what the world will be like in the next 20 or 30 years. Public opinion could have changed markedly by then," she said.

The debate over resource extraction on the ice was not new - a proposal to regulate mining was developed in the 1970s and voted down in 1988.

But it has been given new momentum by China's rapidly expanding interest in the region.

The country's expenditure in Antarctica has ballooned from US$20 million in 2003 to US$55 million ($65 million) in 2012. It has invested in a $350 million icebreaker and ice planes and could be planning to expand its presence from three to four permanent bases on the ice.

China is not the only country with interests in the Antarctic's abundant resources.

Professor Brady, who was based at the University of Canterbury, said: "New Zealand itself would be interested in having an economic payoff for its investment in Antarctica."

But China is the most outspoken critic of the Antarctic Treaty and one of the few countries to overtly express its enthusiasm to mine on the continent.

China is also the Antarctic shareholder which is likely to face the greatest pressure for energy.

The United States' energy worries have been eased by its development of fracking, and Russia still holds significant mineral reserves.

There were still huge logistical obstacles to mining in Antarctica, with 98 per cent of its land covered by ice 4km thick. But the prospects for mining could improve due to the retreat in sea ice and developments in technology.

Previously unreachable oil fields in the Arctic were now being considered for exploitation as a result of climate change and advances in drilling technology.

Professor Brady stressed that China's rise in Antarctica should not be perceived by New Zealand as a threat, but as an opportunity. China was keen to tap into New Zealand's more advanced polar research.

Antarctic Gateway director Brian Storey noted that China had the funding to establish "Big Science" projects on the ice which New Zealand could not afford and would be eager to collaborate on.

New Zealand's failure to properly engage with China on Antarctica was evident in the talks to establish a marine reserve in the Ross Sea in November. China was one of two countries to vote against a US-NZ proposal to establish the world's largest marine protected area.

Experts said this was not because China had fishing interests, but because it was not properly consulted.

The ban on mining was in place until 2048, when Antarctic nations could decide whether it should be re-negotiated.


What's under the ice?

* Coal and iron ore have been found on the continent, and a high proportion of ethane and heavier hydrocarbons have been found in drill holes in the Ross Sea region.

* It has been estimated the continent holds 45 billion barrels of crude oil and 3.2 trillion cu m of natural gas.

* Chromium, copper, gold, nickel and platinum have also been found in small amounts.

Tomorrow

Artists on the ice.

- NZ Herald

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