Antarctic Oil

Does that title send a shiver down your spine? Especially in light of recent events in the Gulf of Mexico. Good. It probably ought to.

image One of the most striking things I learned from Sally Walker’s Frozen Secrets is just what a miracle of diplomacy Antarctica is.  A group of treaties first ratified in 1959 by most of the world’s leading nations protects Antarctica from military and mining and drilling activities. It also sets Antarctica aside for science.

But 1959 was, perhaps not coincidentally, a relative low point in the cost of oil per barrel. “Peak Oil” would probably sound like the name of gas station to 1959 ears, rather than a dire hypothesis for the near future. So, not surprisingly, over the last 51 years there have been occasional challenges to the treaty. After all, there is no doubt that Antarctica has oil:

[F]ollowing the energy crisis of the 1970s, several oil companies looked to Antarctica as a possible solution to future world oil shortages by announcing plans to exploit the continent’s resources. The necessary conditions for economically-sound oil production projects were beginning to ripen along with high oil prices and demand, and improved drilling technology. The prospect that Antarctica’s fragile wilderness could be tainted as a result of oil exploration and drilling activities resulted in the mobilization of several conservation groups who were intent on preserving the continent’s status as the most pristine in the world.

-Department of Energy Antarctica Fact Sheet

The DOE goes on to cite another impetus for strengthening protections in Antarctica, this time in 1991:

On January 28, 1989 the Bahia Paraiso, an Argentine navy transport ship hauling supplies and tourists, ran aground approximately two miles off the coast of Antarctica in the vicinity of Palmer Station. Although no one aboard the ship was injured, the wreck proved to be a setback for the nearby coastal ecosystem, as a 30-foot gash in the ship’s double-walled hull released some 250,000 gallons of diesel fuel and other petroleum products into the surrounding area. The effects from the fuel spill on the local flora and fauna were mostly limited to various sea bird, krill and moss populations, with few populations seeing mortality rates greater than 20%. Because the Bahia Paraiso spill was reportedly the first known accident of its kind in the Antarctic region, the accident alarmed environmental groups, which viewed the incident as a foreshadowing of future accidents if trends in tourism and ship transport were to continue at their current pace along the continental fringe.

The devastating March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound two months later sent an even stronger alarm around the world to dozens of international environmental organizations for the need to protect Antarctica’s unique environment from similar accidents.

image Almost two decades , as Sally writes, it looks like the treaties that protect Antarctica will remain strong:

In 2009 I was invited to attend the Antarctic Treaty Summit, in Washington, D.C. There, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. We drafted, approved, and signed the Forever Declaration, a document that reiterates the view “that Antarctica should remain a continent devoted to international cooperation, the pursuit of scientific endeavor,
and that it should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” I listened to scientists recap highlights of Antarctic investigation. I heard lawmakers discuss future politics and how they might affect the continent. The scientists and lawmakers were not always in agreement. Yet despite their differences, they all agreed in one area: it is crucial that people everywhere should be informed about what has been learned about Antarctica.  Information must be shared in ways that people can understand, so they will care about Antarctica and its future. I hope that Frozen Secrets may be a step toward achieving that goal.

-Sally Walker, Frozen Secrets

When we were putting the book to bed in late April, Sally and I often joked about how there might be some dramatic event in Antarctica moments before we went to press and that we might have “stop the presses” to include it. We were imagining an ice shelf calving off a huge new berg. As it turns out, the dramatic event wasn’t in Antarctica; it was in the Gulf of Mexico. If any good can come from this, it is strengthened resolve to leave protected what that extraordinary treaty in the 1950s set aside

I can’t tell you what all of this means or all of the scientific and political implications of the intersections of science and commerce, but the connectedness of all of this makes the hairs on my neck stand up. And it makes me happy to be working on books that help sort it out.