A battle for control of a huge slice of Antarctic waters is about to get under way, with the UK and Argentina laying claim to substantially the same piece of territory.
Argentina wants all waters around the Falklands, South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands and any other British possessions that may lie within the 1.7million sq km, claimed. By comparison, the UK is laying claim to 1million sq km.
The deadline for Antarctic Shelf claim submissions to the United Nations is May 13, so signalling the end of the 50-year moratorium on claims tabled with the 1959 Antarctica treaty.
Eleven countries are preparing to submit or have already filed – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Spain and the UK.
In March this year, Chile and Argentina met with the intention of working together to oppose Britain’s bid to extend the boundaries of the British Antarctic Territory it first claimed in 1908.
Argentina’s deputy foreign minister, Victorio Tacetti, presented 40 volumes of documentation to the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf in New York last month, describing them as “11 years (of research) in defence of national sovereignty”, according to the Argentine media.
The 1million sq km UK claim was lodged with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea in October, 2007.
If the UN allows this claim – and it is highly unlikely that the sheer scale will be acceptable – it would give the UK rights to all resources in a slice of the South Atlantic extending offshore Antarctica more than 560km.
Basically, the British claim is for about 25% of Antarctic waters and associated shelf resources, which means Argentina wants a staggering 40%. It is not known how large an area the other major competitor, Chile, is seeking.
Such claims include oil&gas resources, should there be any, and studies carried out point to a number of sedimentary basins.
The Australian Government department known as the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD has carried out much of the work to date.
Other than around the Falklands and the Straits of Magellan area, there has been no attempt at commercial drilling for oil&gas, though there has been scientific drilling carried out under the auspices of the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) and Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) and by specific projects in the Ross Sea.
Deep Sea Drilling Project activity in the early-1970s did encounter traces of gas in the Ross Sea, but drilling was suspended.
The best clues as to what may lie deep below the Antarctic Ocean perhaps derive from the Falklands shelf work surveys carried out by British Geological Survey and subsequent drilling by several oil-company consortia in the late-1990s. While that first drilling campaign was a commercial failure, hydrocarbons were encountered.
Today, companies such as Desire, Rockhopper and BHP Billiton are confident that commercial quantities of oil and gas will be found, and are planning to drill within the next two years.
New Zealand has also offered deepwater acreage in its sea-space between South Island and Antarctica. But it is early days with that effort.
As for any reserves estimates of what might exist, it has been calculated that the Weddell and Ross Sea areas alone could hide 50billion barrels of oil. Is a bonanza brewing? Energy believes not as it could take years for the UN to sort out the various claims.
And then there is the sheer difficulty of sustaining an extended hunt for oil&gas on the Antarctic Shelf because of the distances involved – though, in a few years, more advanced drilling rigs will be available as there is a significant build programme under way for Brazil and West Africa.