30 days ago - Politics and Society

Discovery of Oil in Antarctica: A New Geopolitical Conflict on the Horizon?

By Celina

Discovery of Oil in Antarctica: A New Geopolitical Conflict on the Horizon?

Antarctica is the southernmost continent on Earth, known for its severe climatic conditions which make it the coldest, driest, and windiest place on the planet, with 99% of its surface covered in ice. This hostile and icy environment explains why it was the last region on Earth to be discovered, just 200 years ago.

Its discovery remains a topic of debate. Official history documents the first arrival to the Antarctic coast in the early 19th century and acknowledges Edward Bransfield (captain of the British Royal Navy), Nathaniel Palmer (American captain), and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (sailor of the Russian Empire) as co-discoverers of the continent. However, it is plausible that the first to set foot on Antarctic land, without leaving any record, were sailors from various fleets who, in search of lucrative whale and seal oil, operated outside official cartographic recognition and often guarded their discoveries closely, motivated by the strict economic logic of preserving oligopolistic gains from maritime exploitation.

Antarctica became the last bastion in the competition for control of new territories and resources during imperialist expansion. This race to the South Pole among the major powers transformed the white continent from a purely commercial target for seal and whale hunters, into a primary interest for science and geographic exploration. Thus, from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the so-called "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration" developed, characterized by an international effort aimed at the scientific and geographic advancement of the continent.

Nevertheless, although the knowledge obtained from Antarctic exploration has resulted in public good, the evolution of polar policies has been marked by the geopolitical interest of Western states in establishing a presence and strengthening their strategic positions on the continent. During the first half of the 20th century, the territorial interests of seven European and Latin American countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) in Antarctica generated international tensions that only dissipated thanks to the intervention of the United States. This intervention, along with South Africa, Belgium, Japan, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on December 1, 1959.

The Antarctic Treaty established a balance of power among the twelve states with claims on the Antarctic continent and laid the groundwork for cooperative and peaceful governance, marking a milestone in international collaboration. Currently, 38 countries are signatories and its goal is to limit military activities on the continent in order to promote scientific research and peace, as well as to foster the conservation of ecosystems and the protection of the Antarctic environment. In this sense, the Treaty prohibits military and nuclear exercises, as well as the establishment of bases for war purposes, proclaiming the freedom of scientific research and recognizing the pre-existing territorial claims of some signatory states.

Its durability and evolution through additional instruments, such as the 1991 Madrid Protocol, which prohibits commercial mining for a period of 50 years, have been determining factors for the effective governance of the territory. However, a recent discovery could once again intensify disputes over control of Antarctica and jeopardize the continuity of this regime of international cooperation.

According to reports from the British newspaper The Telegraph, on May 11, the Russian company RosGeo discovered an oil field in Antarctica. It is said to be the largest oil reservoir in the world, with estimated reserves of 511 billion barrels. Its size would be equivalent to double the reserves of Saudi Arabia and 30 times that of Vaca Muerta.

The recent discovery has once again raised alarms about a possible geopolitical dispute over control and sovereignty of the region, which is crucial for Argentina, as the discovery is said to have occurred within the Antarctic territory with Argentine bases, spanning from the South Pole to the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea. Expectations for the initiation of military and commercial explorations in the region have increased significantly, considering that Vladimir Putin is in charge of Russia, which has generated greater concern in the international arena.

In summary, the current geopolitical context in Antarctica is framed in a complex dynamic that could be interpreted through game theory. Countries with interests in the region participate in a game where cooperation is fundamental, and they might obtain greater benefits if they reach a consensus within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty. However, the recent discovery of the oil field has introduced incentives that could challenge this cooperation. In particular, Russia, having made the discovery, might be tempted to seek individual benefits rather than maintaining the cooperation established by the Treaty. This situation poses a challenge to the international governance regime in Antarctica, putting at risk the stability and continuity of cooperation on the continent.

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