By Darren Taylor
A large part of Russia’s oil and gas exploration fleet is currently using South Africa’s biggest harbor as a launchpad for forays into Antarctica, the planet’s last unmined frontier.
Based in Cape Town with Moscow’s seismic blaster ships, the Kremlin’s mineral prospecting company, Rosgeo, has not tried to keep its activities in Antarctica hidden.
In February 2020, it released a statement from Cape Town, one of five “gateway ports” to Antarctica, saying it had found deposits equivalent to 500 billion barrels of oil and gas in the ecologically sensitive Southern Ocean.
Global annual oil consumption stands at about 35 billion barrels.
Rosgeo insisted it’s prospecting was “purely for scientific purposes” and that it did not intend to “mine for minerals” in Antarctica.
Doing so would violate part of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, ratified by Russia and 28 other states, including South Africa. A ban on mining in the region entered into force in 1998 under the Madrid Protocol, the treaty’s environmental constitution.
South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) government has emerged as a key ally of Moscow’s since President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
It is giving sanctioned Russian vessels safe passage in its waters, and is also allowing them to dock in its harbors, which are the most developed in Africa.
“Without South Africa, it’ll be very difficult for Russia to reach Antarctica through other gateway countries,” said Cape Town-based environmental scientist Liz McDaid.
“Australia, New Zealand, and Chile have all indicated they won’t allow Russia’s prospecting ships to dock in their ports, because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and because they’re concerned that Russian activities in the Southern Ocean will cause unparalleled harm to one of the earth’s last pristine ecologies,” she told The Epoch Times.
Ms. McDaid said Argentina, another gateway, was currently able to provide “only limited support” to Russia’s West Antarctic station.
South Africa, one of the closest countries to Antarctica, maintains a research base on the frozen continent, which scientists say is increasingly threatened by climate change.
Pretoria’s top polar official, Lisolomzi Fikizolo, was last week grilled by opposition parties in parliament about his department’s apparent cooperation with Russia in its attempt to explore Antarctica.
He said repeatedly that his government did not know what Russia was doing in the region, despite Rosgeo’s relatively frequent statements—issued by its office in Cape Town—spelling out Russia’s prospecting activities.
Mr. Fikizolo said South Africa “remained committed to preserving the area’s unique character.”
He added that his department was “totally against any mining research” in Antarctica.
When opposition members of parliament pointed out to Mr. Fikizolo that this was exactly what Rosgeo was doing, using Cape Town as the base for its operations, he replied, “It has been allegations with no evidence.”
When presented with Rosgeo’s own 2020 statement, in which it brazenly acknowledged extensive and successful research into oil and gas deposits in Antarctica, Mr. Fikizolo said he needed to “study” the document before responding further.
He was also presented with the 2021 annual report of the Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition (PMGE), a privatized subsidiary of Rosgeo based in St. Petersburg but often operating from Cape Town.
In the report, PMGE detailed how the Kremlin had supported its mission to “build an information base” on “the mineral resource potential of the Antarctic.”
Last year, again using Cape Town as a launchpad, the company’s vessels explored West Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. The efforts of international environmental organizations to proclaim the sea a “marine-protected area” have failed in recent years, mostly because of opposition from China and Russia.
Russia’s polar science operator, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), has also confirmed that “seismic surveys” were completed on continental East Antarctica in the summer of 2021–2022.
Mr. Fikizolo also said he had “nothing to say” about Russian state documents detailing the Kremlin’s “grand vision for the White Continent and surrounds.”
According to that 2021 “Action Plan” (pdf), Russian state entities Rosgeo; AARI; hydro/environment agency Roshydromet; and mineral resource agency Rosnedra would investigate Antarctica’s “geological structure and minerals” – including coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore and uranium – by land, air and sea.
The Epoch Times contacted Russia’s natural resources and foreign affairs ministries for comment, but did not receive a response.
During the parliamentary hearing in Cape Town, Mr. Fikizolo said the South African government, “even if it wanted to,” could not interrogate Russian activities in Antarctica “simply because they are occurring on foreign soil.”
“The South African government stance on Russian activities in Antarctica is ridiculous,” said Ms. McDaid. “Russian state agencies have been bragging about finding massive oilfields in marine sedimentary basins on the continent, and its ‘raw material potential’ since the early 2000s. Why talk like this when you don’t intend to commercially exploit your findings?”
South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs told The Epoch Times it was “only fair” of it to offer “any and all assistance” to Russian expeditions to Antarctica, since they were “scientific research missions.”
But Dr. Alan Hemmings, a specialist on Antarctic governance at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said Russia itself had “all but acknowledged” it was “prospecting” on the continent with the aim of identifying areas of mineral resource potential for possible exploration and development.
He told The Epoch Times Antarctic prospecting was outlawed by the Madrid Protocol, which prohibits “any activity relating to mineral resources” in Antarctica.
“Of course there’s science and research involved in trying to locate oil and gas, but in the end what you’re doing is prospecting for oil and gas. To argue otherwise is absurd,” said Mr Hemmings, who was an observer at the negotiations that resulted in the Madrid Protocol.
“All countries present, including South Africa and Russia, agreed that prospecting was the first of three stages of mineral resource activities, and quite separate from scientific research activities.”
Ms. McDaid said Russia, with support from South Africa, was abusing the treaty’s “freedom of scientific investigation” principle “by trying to pass prospecting off as simple geology.”
Mr. Hemmings is part of an expanding group of academics and environmentalists who want a “forever ban” on mining minerals in Antarctica.
He pointed out the terms of the Madrid Protocol were up for possible renegotiation in 2048.
“It’s possible that a majority of treaty states could vote to change Antarctica’s mining laws,” said Mr. Hemmings. “We’re seeing moves in that direction, especially from Russia, but also from other countries. India, for example, has a new Antarctic bill before parliament that makes a provision for ‘mineral resource activity’ the Indian government regards as scientific research.”
Elizabeth Buchanan, polar geopolitics expert at Australia’s Deakin University and fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point, said Antarctic mining would be feasible only if oil prices were consistently above $150 per barrel.
“Russian activities in Antarctica could also be about stifling market competition. Moscow perhaps wants to stop other states tapping these oil reserves and becoming energy competitors on the global stage,” she told The Epoch Times.