A Russian state-owned corporation has denied it is exploring for hydrocarbons in the Antarctic, despite protests by environmental groups in South Africa that raised the spectre of Moscow secretly searching for oil and gas in the frozen southern continent’s waters.

Last week, Extinction Rebellion protesters held up banners reading “Hands off Antarctica” as Rosgeologia’s exploration vessel the Akademik Karpinsky arrived in Cape Town port on a stopover after reportedly completing research work in the Southern Ocean.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters, joined by Greenpeace, demonstrated at the port, saying the ship’s seismic surveys in the Antarctic were a threat to marine life in the area and violated the 1958 Antarctic Treaty.

A 1998 amendment to the 55-nation Antarctic Treaty, to which both Russia and South Africa are signatories, prohibits all mineral exploration and extraction in the region.

However, a source close to Rosgeologia told Upstream that the quality of seismic data gathered by the Akademik Karpinskiy is not good enough to be used to decide where to drill exploration wells.

The source said the data collected only aims to help build a general geological model of the subsurface, without focusing on any particular block where the presence of hydrocarbons could be found.

In an earlier letter to environmental non-governmental organisations in South Africa, a copy of which was seen by Upstream, Rosgeologia said: “We give only the most general assessment of the distribution of possible hydrocarbons in the Antarctic seas, which is carried out as part of the study of the geological structure.

“Hydrocarbons are considered as part of nature. If we identify many kilometres of sediments, but forget to include in their description the potential for the content of hydrocarbons, then such a scientific study will look insufficiently competent,” the letter argued.

In 2020, Rosgeologia made public its assessment of Antarctica’s potential hydrocarbon resources, estimating they stood at about 500 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

However, this announcement drew the ire of environmentalists in South Africa.

XR said the Akademik Karpinsky, “and others like it in all likelihood have harmed Antarctica’s vulnerable marine ecosystems and inflicted sonic distress on marine species, including critically endangered blue whales and emperor penguins”.

The campaign group said this type of research “constitutes a breach of the 55-nation Antarctic Treaty… under which resource exploration and extraction in the Antarctic region has been banned since 1998”.

XR called on South Africa to refuse port entry to seismic research vessels working in Antarctica and asked for proof that these vessels “are engaged in bona fide scientific research as defined by Antarctic treaties, and that they have neither the intention nor the technologies to prospect for fossil fuel reserves in the Antarctic region, before being allowed to transit via South Africa”.

Soviet survey legacy in Antarctica

The Soviet Union had been conducting seismic surveys in the Antarctic since the 1970s under the aegis of establishing its hegemony in Africa and across the globe.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring Russia a direct successor of the USSR, the country has stepped up activity in the Antarctic during his tenure, recently installing a new research station on the continent.

Its construction was bankrolled by Russian liquefied natural gas billionaire Leonid Mikhelson, executive chairman of independent gas producer Novatek which received extensive tax and other privileges from the government for its domestic LNG projects.

According to the source familiar with Rosgeologia’s activities, the Akademik Karpinsky’s operations in the Antarctic are being financed from the Russian budget under a state programme for the replacement of natural mineral resources.

Broadly speaking, this programme aims to identify locations of previously unknown and untapped hydrocarbon resources within Russia that the authorities could later grant to oil producers for further exploration and development.

However, the source close to Rosgeologia told Upstream that despite the objectives of this financing programme, the contractor’s operations in Antarctica are aimed exclusively at scientific study of the region’s geology.

Thee Akademik Karpinsky has now left Cape Town and is en route to the Baltic Sea.

As well as the former USSR and South Africa, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the UK and the US.

When the treaty was ratified in 1959 — it came into force in 1961 — nine of its signatories had made territorial claims to the landmass and its waters, or reserved the right to do so.

However, the treaty states that all territorial claims are “frozen” and new ones cannot be made while the treaty remains in force.

The UK, Chile, Argentina, France, Australia, Norway and New Zealand have formal claims (some overlapping) to Antarctica territory, while the US and Russia have reserved their right to submit similar claims.

No claims have been made for a large area of West Antarctica.

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