On Thursday, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell’s administration filed a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging the Interior Department is illegally blocking oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the state’s northern coast.
Which makes me wonder how long before the oil industry looks southward—far south, to Antarctica—for potential undersea oil riches.
To date, few have seriously considered drilling for oil off the coast of Antarctica, for a couple of simple reasons. For one, the treaty that governs the continent says such exploration is off-limits until at least 2041. And who wants to risk floating a $1 billion-plus rig in a sea that is home to 20-mile-long mobile icebergs?
But a combination of factors makes the seafloor around Antarctica tempting to oil drillers.
First, think about where the seventh continent came from: It broke off many millions of years ago from the tips of South America and Africa, which are both rich in mineral deposits. Second, consider ocean warming. Warming air and sea temperatures dissipate more and more sea ice along the 1,000-mile Antarctic Peninsula, making drilling for oil slightly more practical with each austral summer.
In 2006, Iranian oil guru Dr. Ali Samsam Bakhtiari said oil prices would need to surpass $200 a barrel for drilling off Antarctica to make economic sense; not long after that speculation, prices peaked at $147. (The going rate today is just above $73.) As the world’s human population grows; so will pressure to find fossil fuels. Nowhere on the planet will be off limits forever.
While the Antarctic Treaty, written in 1959 and amended in 1991, extended the provision against mineral exploration for 50 years, the agreement has never adequately addressed exactly who owns the seabed surrounding the continent. That future fight has been left to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which has suggested the seabed around Antarctica, is the “common heritage” of “all interested parties.”
On more than 20 excursions to Antarctica's high, cold interior and the Peninsula, I've visited a dozen science bases from as many countries. Every single one of them has had some kind of drilling going on, always in the name of science, to study climate history or geology. I’m sure they are doing just that. But they are also drilling to figure out how to penetrate all that ice just in case someone “accidentally” strikes oil.
Who will be first, is a good question. The Chinese have recently announced a big new investment in Antarctica and may be the front-runner.
On the surface, China’s spending on planes, helicopters and outfitting its station for year-round use falls in line with the treaty’s “for science only” mandate. The upgrades also match China’s emergence as a growing influence around the globe. The country's new icebreaker will be able to carry 60 scientists and 8,000 tons of equipment, through five feet of ice. It expects to drill deeper than anyone has before, “through more than 1 million years of climate history.”
But in an upcoming Asian Survey story titled “China’s Rise in Antarctica,” New Zealand researcher Anne-Marie Brady suggests, “Chinese-language polar-science discussions are dominated by debates about resources and how China might gain its share.”
The Chinese government says of course it will be drilling at its newly retrofitted base, called Kunlun, but only for science. Yet its Antarctic program is a division of the State Oceanic Administration, which last week sent submersibles to the bottom of the South China Sea to claim its disputed seabed for the motherland.
No one expects oil rigs anytime soon off the coast of Antarctica; I’m sure some U.S. administration in the near future will lighten up and allow drilling off Alaska. But as the planet’s human population gains on 9 billion—a number that should be reached right around the time the ban on mineral exploration in Antarctica is due to expire—who knows what havoc the future might bring to what is still the most pristine place on the planet.