Friday, February 20, 1998

Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities

"This treaty will last 'til a big mineral discovery is made -- then it will be every man for himself."
-- attributed to an unidentified European delegate after a 1972 meeting of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties.

The 1988 Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) was held to try to develop a legal framework that would prevent this kind of destructive free-for-all. CRAMRA, which is one of the longest and most complicated of the Antarctic treaties, was instituted to "ensure that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord". In other words, the treaty was another attempt to ensure that all countries recognize Antarctica as falling under a res communis rather than a res nullius regime. Furthermore, the treaty declared:

No Antarctic mineral resource activity shall take place until it is judged, based upon assessment of its possible impacts on the Antarctic environment and on dependent or associated ecosystems, that the activity in question would not cause ... damage to Antarctica's environment and global weather patterns.

CRAMRA required the creation of several institutions, including a scientific advisory committee, and it established very strict guidelines about how efforts to extract Antarctic minerals might proceed.

Some people, such as Russell Marshall, New Zealand's Foreign Minister, praised CRAMRA for filling a dangerous legal vacuum: "... the convention is an innovative and farsighted document. In fact, in terms of its rigour and its effectiveness, the convention's protection regime has no parallel in international law-making".

Conservation and environmental groups vehemently disagreed with this view, since they felt that Antarctic mining should never be allowed under any circumstances. In fact, Australia refused to sign the treaty. Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke explained his country's rejection of the treaty:

"First, the Antarctic environment is extremely fragile and critically important to the whole global ecosystem. Second, mining in Antarctica will always be dangerous, and could be catastrophically so ... we are convinced that the Minerals Convention is basically flawed. It is based on the clearly incorrect assumption that mining in the Antarctic could be consistent with the preservation of the continent's fragile environment. Any mining operation ... would have a lasting and major impact on the area in which it takes place."

Despite the many criticisms of CRAMRA, the treaty exists, and so far, Antarctica has gone mostly unmolested (with the notable exception of the proliferation of scientific stations on the continent, but that's a topic better dealt with in another writeup). The mining companies have left Antarctica alone mostly because of simple economics: the continent is too cold, too dangerous, too far away, and useful minerals are buried under too much ice to make mining profitable.

In fact, a would-be miner would have to dig through about 2,000 meters of ice before he would hit anything resembling a rock. Winter temperatures on the continent can drop to -70° C, and violent katabatic winds batter the coast. Things don't get much better in the summer: temperatures may only reach -15° C, and the coastal ice breaks up into a treacherous maze of icebergs.

These conditions make Antarctica the mineral resource of last resort, because any company would have to be pretty desperate to try to start an operation there, especially since there are more accessible areas of the world that haven't been exploited yet.

But conservationists and environmentalists continue to worry, simply because CRAMRA's framers felt there was something worth regulating under all that ice. They worry that there may come a time when the nations of the world have depleted their mineral supplies enough and technology has advanced enough to make mining in Antarctica economically feasible.

After all, most people agree that there are in fact mineral resources in Antarctica. As far as "hard" minerals go, chromium, copper, nickel, and platinum have been found in the Pensacola Mountains, which is thought to be the most feasible spot for any mining operation. Other geologic surveys have turned up molybdenum, tin, manganese, gold, silver, cobalt, lead, titanium, and uranium as well as the Pensacola minerals. A low-grade iron formation has been found in the Prince Charles Mountains, and there is bituminous coal in the Transantarctic Mountains.

As far as oil and gas go, hydrocarbons (mostly methane) were found in cores drilled by the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSPS) in the Ross Sea in 1973. So little is known about Antarctic geology and on-shore prospecting would take so much money and effort that there has been virtually no serious interest in looking for oil on the continent itself. Because of the discovery of the hydrocarbon traces in the Ross Sea cores, offshore drilling has been considered to be semi-feasible by some people.

But any drilling operation in Antarctic waters is almost sure to be hit by an iceberg once the ice breaks up in the summer months; operations would have to be temporary or seasonal and oil extraction limited to the bitter winter. Thus, a country would have to be pretty desperate for oil to try to start a drilling operation there. Given the state of the world economy and known oil supply, no one is likely to seriously consider oil exploration in Antarctica for at least fifty years. By the same token, some people estimate that the hard minerals on Antarctica won't be worth real prospecting for another hundred years.

Given this time span, it is reasonable to think that if developed countries have advanced their technology enough to make mining and drilling in Antarctica a safer, more feasible venture, then they will have also developed other sources of energy (such as solar or nuclear power or plant-derived alcohol fuels) to a point that they are no longer dependent on oil and coal. Thus, trying to exploit Antarctica's meager resources would seem a bit pointless for anyone who was in a position to do so.

So, have the conservationists and environmentalists been worrying over nothing? Has the controversy over CRAMRA been nothing but a tempest in the international teapot? Can we quit worrying about mining and spend more time worrying about Antarctic tourists and superfluous scientists spilling garbage and bothering the penguins?

Not quite. People should be genuinely concerned about mining in the Antarctic, but as far as I can tell, they haven't been looking at the environmental Big Picture.

No one's likely to go to the Great White South for iron, or coal, or even oil. It's just too much trouble to get the stuff. Ironically, Antarctica's biggest logistical drawback is also its greatest natural resource: ice.

Antarctica has miles upon miles of clean ice. As much as ninety percent of the world's fresh water is sitting down there, and come summertime, it breaks off into nice, big, towable chunks. A company could send a couple of ships down with super-sized grappling hooks and bungee cords, snag an iceberg, and tow it away to be melted down at a coastal city. All in all, berg-towing would be a low-tech operation; the tricky parts would be keeping the thing hooked up and getting the ship to port fast enough to keep the ice from melting.

"Why the heck would we want to melt down an iceberg?" I can hear the hypothetical reader ask. "The planet is covered in water, for pete's sake!"

Yes, water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink ... or to use for irrigation, for that matter.

That's the problem; pollution from developed countries has seriously damaged the quality of the world's fresh water supply. As people who've been through the trauma of water rationing in states like California and Texas already know, there isn't enough fresh water for people to use as they please.

Most fresh water is used for agricultural irrigation. And, of course, most farmers spray their crops with plenty of pesticide and dump lots of fertilizer on their fields, so irrigation run-off is thoroughly contaminated. And, despite the fact that pest-resistant plant varieties have been developed, farmers in both industrialized and developing countries continue to use lots of insecticides and are not expected to change their ways in the near future. Rice, an enormously important staple in many developing countries with burgeoning populations, is particularly problematic. First, rice requires lots of fresh water to grow in, and second, rice pesticides are among the most toxic agrochemicals. So, as the populations in developing countries continue to grow, more rice paddies will get started, and more and more toxic pesticides will be used.

Of course, on top of agricultural run-off, there are plenty of companies dumping toxic gunk into rivers and lakes around the world. The Danube isn't blue anymore, and Indian worshippers are truly placing their health in the hands of the gods when they bathe in the Ganges.

Organic pesticides are rather hard to get out of the water supply once they're in it. And most developing countries lack the water treatment facilities to get the E. coli and soil particles out, much less the chlorinated organics. Even in American towns like Bloomington, IN with its modern water treatment facility, the residents are rightly concerned about possible PCB contamination in their water supply.

Toxic chemicals aside, there are two other world-wide environmental problems that could lead to a serious fresh water shortage: deforestation and the Greenhouse Effect.

Both these problems could lead to climate changes around the world. The loss of forest cover is expected to lead to increased desertification in Africa and possibly in South America. On a regional scale, a loss of vegetation would reduce the amount of water vapor in the air and could result in reduced rainfall to the area (thus resulting in rivers and reservoirs drying up, etc.)

Global warming from CO2 and methane emissions is expected to warm up the atmosphere, although there is much debate about how much warming. Sea levels are expected to rise, and this could lead to bodies of fresh water becoming tainted with saltwater. Some scientists also believe that global warming might lead to the subtropical deserts in Mexico, Africa, and Asia extending their ranges into temperate Northern regions (or Southern regions, if one is in Argentina or Chile).

For instance, this could cause the Chihuahuan desert to creep over Texas and perhaps even into Oklahoma, thus wiping out cotton fields and range land for cattle. Furthermore, rivers and small lakes (some of which are already in pretty poor condition simply because of mineral build-up from summer evaporation) will dry up, leaving many large cities such as Dallas with a severely compromised municipal water supply.

So, the picture for fresh water supply gets worse when one considers both the fresh water pollution problem and global desertification.

We obviously have substitutes for oil and gas, but there's no substitute for fresh water. It's not something we can do without.

At the rate we're going, we could start having serious fresh water supply problems before we start running seriously low on oil. And when that happens, the thirsty world will turn to the clean, abundant ice of Antarctica for relief.

People will try to extract drinkable water from the oceans as well, but I doubt that any large-scale desalination efforts would be as economically feasible as getting icebergs from Antarctica. First, people have been trying to get fresh water out of the ocean for a long time. The only countries that currently get clean water from the sea are Middle Eastern oil countries that have small populations. Salt water is really hard on machinery, and desalination plants break down a lot. Furthermore, pollution can be just as bad in coastal waters as it is in rivers and lakes. Coastal countries with large populations are more likely to want to try to melt icebergs than they are to try to squeeze the salt out of seawater.

So where does this leave the Antarctic Treaties? To me, the prospect of not being able to grow crops is a lot more disturbing than not being able to drive cars or make plastics.

If the world starts getting thirsty, I have the feeling that all the CRAMRA agreements are going to get left out in the cold.


Fackelman, Kathy A. "Reassessing Pesticides' Value." Science News, January 29, 1994, Vol. 145 No. 5, p. 79.

Holdgate, Martin W. "Ice Under Pressure." Environment, October 1990, Vol. 32 No. 8, pp. 4-33.

Parsons, Anthony. Antarctica: The Next Decade. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Suter, Keith. Antarctica: Private Property or Public Heritage? Zed Books Ltd., 1991.