The near pristine environment of Antarctica will in time come under a threat in future as the world's oil supplies dwindle, a University of Canterbury expert said today.
The polar continent may need greater protection to save it from exploitation by increasingly desperate oil-hungry nations, UC’s Gateway Antarctica director Bryan Storey said today.
While mining is banned by the Antarctic Treaty, pressure may mount on Antarctica - the final frontier. The Madrid Protocol was signed in 1991 by signatories to the Antarctic Treaty banning mining; this is up for review in 2048. The Madrid Protocol became law in 1998.
Antarctica is known to have minerals, oil and gas deposits. Coal has been found in Antarctica; and iron ore is present in surface rocks and has been traced deep under the ice. Rocks in Antarctica have been suggested to contain oil or gas.
Professor Storey said a high proportion of ethane and heavier hydrocarbons has been found in drill holes in the Ross Sea region. The Wall Street Journal years ago quoted estimates of 45 billion barrels of crude oil and 115 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Scientists drilling the Antarctic seabed have found a very high probability that oil and gas deposits exist just off shore from Australia’s Davis and Mawson bases.
``We have every reason to believe that Antarctica has the potential for large mineral and oil resources. If we go back more than 180 million years Antarctica was the centre of a large continent Gondwana the geological history of which I have been researching for over 30 years,’’ Professor Storey said.
``All the neighbouring continents that Antarctica was connected to, South America, Africa, India and Australia have all large mineral resources and many of the relevant geological formations continue into Antarctica.
``Furthermore Antarctica as a result of having separated from those continents is surrounded by sedimentary basins that are likely to contain substantial oil resources.’’
It is widely assumed that the Madrid Protocol ends in 2048 but this is not the case, Professor Storey said. The Protocol can be “reviewed” if one of the Antarctic Treaty consultative states asked for a review after 50 years that was 2048.
However, the big question is, will the protocol last the duration or will economic and political pressure for resources result in mineral resources being extracted from Antarctica within the next 36 years? Dr Storey said.
``Anyone who has worked in Antarctica does not want it to happen. My hope is that we will eventually get the message about climate change and move away from a carbon based economy and not be so dependent on oil and oil based products. Hopefully this will happen before the pressure to extract resources from Antarctica becomes a reality.’’
Professor Storey will be delivering an address on the issue at Icefest in Christchurch on Saturday.