The UK proposes to claim its sovereign rights over an area of more than 1 million square kilometres (386,000 square miles) of the seabed off Antarctica, in defiance of the Antarctic treaty, which it signed-up to in 1959. The Foreign Office told the Guardian newspaper that an evaluation is being made of information with the intention of submitting a claim to the United Nations (UN) which could extend Britain's rights to exploration for oil, gas and minerals by up to 350 miles offshore from Antarctica into the Southern Ocean (the ring of ocean that circles Antarctica). However, in consequence of its great depth (4 km in parts), the actual extraction of these resources is not as yet feasible, but the claim will undoubtedly anger neighbouring south American countries, notably Chile and Argentina, who feel redoubted in their own rights to them.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, and I remember at the time in 1982, there was some proposition that part of the UK's reluctance to give-up the Falklands Islands to Argentina, who had invaded them, was indeed down to potential future "mineral rights" in the region. The Falklands War suited both sides at the time, since Argentina had huge levels of unemployment while in the UK, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister ever, mainly in consequence of the collapse of our manufacturing industries (as part of her war against the trade unions and aided by their economic uncompetitiveness against imports from other nations), in addition to the universally despised and loathed "poll tax". A hefty dose of nationalism that only a war could provide was just the thing to distract attention from such home troubles on both sides. In the end, the islands were liberated from Argentine rule through the self-sacrifice of many brave men. 25 years on, and with impending shortages of oil and gas, winning the Falklands Islands may have led to a beneficial legacy for the UK, in terms of new resources of these key energy components.
There are other UK claims to undersea resources too: in the Atlantic Ocean around South Georgia and the Falkland Islands; around Ascension Island; in the Hatton/Rockall basin (I mentioned the latter in "Undersea Oil Claims - Rockall", last month), and there is another claim being made for a large area of seabed under the Bay of Biscay by a consortium involving the UK, Spain, France and Ireland, which the UN is currently considering. The claims are based on article 76 of the UN convention of the law of the sea.
There are environmental concerns regarding the impact of such future exploration on the ecology of the region; however, relatively little is known about what exactly is down there. We know more about the surface of the Moon that we do about the seabed on Earth. British biologists recently made a dive down to depths of over two miles in a small submersible and identified krill, different kinds of shrimp, sea cucumbers and starfish-like creatures, all present in flourishing numbers. The British Antarctic Territory is a triangular wedge covering 660,000 square miles (almost 2 million square kilometres) with its apex at the south pole, and with two permanently manned research stations there. It was first claimed in 1908, making next year the centenary of its inauguration, when it is planned to issue its first ever legal tender coin, by way of celebration. A taste of things to come?
There is international intention to exploit certainly oil and gas reserves from undersea locations, despite the considerable technical difficulty in doing so, for example the recent claim by Russia to undersea land off northern Siberia where oil is believed to be present in quantity. If peak oil were a hoax, as a few still contest, the world would not even be considering going to lengths of this kind to secure further supplies of the stuff, and clearly it is expected that the reality of oil-supply will become desperate in the foreseeable future, (i.e. within a decade).
"Britain to claim more than 1m square km of Antarctica", By Owen Boycott, The Guardian, Wednesday 17.10.07.