Antarctica, the last wilderness, a continent covered by glaciers and surrounded by sea-ice – and full of oil?
There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about huge oil reserves in Antarctica. China building a new research station has prompted TIME.com to write about a “race for resources” between countries and The Guardian also reported on the People’s Republic’s increased presence on the icy continent as proof of their desire to stake a claim to the South Pole’s riches.
Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, resource extraction on the continent is banned and this restriction can only be lifted in 2048 (and only then if 3/4 of Treaty Parties agree and there is a regulatory system in place), so for now, the only way for nations to be a player in the Antarctic game is through scientific research. As one of the most pristine ecosystems left on this planet, Antarctica is a great setting in which scientists can examine anything from climate processes to penguins. But somehow all these articles make it seem as if everyone is just sneaking down there to wait for the Antarctic Treaty to expire and start drilling for the hundreds of billions of barrels of oil supposedly to be found under the ice and rock. But are there really such significant resources?
Antarctic fur seal and king penguins
The Guardian cites a Policy Brief by the Lowy Institute in which National Security Fellow Ellie Fogarty claims that “Antarctica’s predicted oil reserves have been estimated at up to 203 billion barrels”, making it “the third largest in the world.” She cites the source of this information as a publication by Bill St John, then President of Primary Fuels Inc., which was referenced in a publication by MacDonald et al. titled “A preliminary assessment of the hydrocarbon potential of the Larsen Basin, Antarctica”.
Thus, Fogarty did not cite the original source of the estimate, but instead cited a reference to it in another work. Furthermore, MacDonald et al. were actually criticizing the St. John estimate as “hampered by poor data”. They explain that St John simply estimated the volume of Antarctic sedimentary basins and assumed that they hold as much oil as very productive regions on other continents. Such an estimate is extremely theoretical and unreliable since it is not based on surveys but rather on guesses. In another report on Antarctic resources, John Kingston, petroleum expert of the US Geological Survey, emphasizes that he does not endorse St. John’s assumptions.
Not only is it extremely unlikely that Antarctica harbors billions of barrels of oil, but it is even questionable if the continent has any reserves that would be worth exploring. In a chapter on Energy Minerals in the Encyclopedia of the Antarctic of 2007, MacDonald, professor for petroleum geology at the University of Aberdeen, explains that the only exploitable coal is hard to get to and that no oil and gas has ever been found. “The petroleum potential is unproven (but likely to be low). Coupled with the difficulties of working in the harsh environment, it is unlikely that any exploration will occur in the future”, the chapter concludes.
So what is all the fuss about? If Antarctica does not actually hold huge oil reserves, they cannot be a threat to its protection, right? Except that such misinformation creates what Macdonald calls the “El Dorado complex - the idea that unknown lands will be a treasure trove of resources.” Media stories that present this kind of information as solid fact rather than unconfirmed speculation can shape public perception and can influence political action. Countries might be reluctant to designate protected areas if they feel like this will keep them from future prosperity through oil exploitation and thus make way for other types of resource use, jeopardizing the health of this last truly wild place.
- Fogarty, E. (2011). Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia’s National Interests. Policy Brief. Lowy Institute for International Policy.
- MacDonald, D. I. M. et al, (1987). A preliminary assessment of the hydrocarbon potential of the Larsen Basin, Antarctica, Marine and Petroleum Geology, 5, 34-53.
- MacDonald, D. I. M. (2007). Coal, Oil and Gas, In: Encyclopedia of the Antarctic (Ed. Beau Riffenburgh), 1, 268-269.
- Kingston, J. (1992). The undiscovered oil and gas of Antarctica. [Denver, CO]: Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
- St John, B. (1986) Antarctica -- geology and hydrocarbon potential, In: Future petroleum provinces of the world (Ed. M. Halbouty) Am. Ass. Petrol. GeoL Mere. 40, 55-100
- Interview with Professor MacDonald: http://en.mercopress.com/2012/05/21/oil-and-gas-in-antarctica-el-dorado-complex-according-to-british-scientist