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Anywhere but Antarctic!

Imagine, if you will, a world where Britain is drilling for oil in the pristine wilderness of Antarctic.

It’s a chilling thought, isn’t it? Not just because of the icy landscapes, but for the sheer audacity of the idea: firing the starter’s pistol on a mad South Pole resources race when there are easier, cheaper barrels to produce closer to home.

But this is exactly what Jacob Rees-Mogg, the high-profile Conservative MP and host on broadcaster GB News, wants to do. The ex-energy minister, and MP for North East Somerset, took to the airwaves recently to suggest Britain should get drilling. Russia, he said, has supposedly “discovered” an ungodly amount of oil there.

Russia’s state-owned Rosgeo has reportedly identified a petroleum-bearing prospect in the Weddell Sea. This could contain an estimated 511 billion barrels of crude. This lies within an area of the Antarctic claimed by the UK. That’s more than eleven times the 45 billion barrels of oil-equivalent liquid hydrocarbons produced in the North Sea since 1975, according to North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) data.

Falling for propaganda

The announcement is thinly veiled Russian propaganda. The announcement is intended to foment tension in the UK’s international relations. Drilling an exploratory well would amount to a breach of the terms of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. It would trigger a diplomatic crisis between the founding signatories – which include the UK, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway.

In any case, the Weddell Sea resource estimate is based merely on seismic surveys and no drilling has taken place. There has been no “discovery” to speak of in the technical sense of proven or probable reserves.

Quantifying the reserves implies drilling in one of the most inhospitable and unspoiled environments on Earth. The technical challenges would be immense and the risks would be all but uninsurable. No Western financier with even a passing interest in ESG matters would seriously contemplate such an endeavour.

I put these points to Rees-Mogg in a live TV debate on GB News, but he was unequivocal.

“This was said when the North Sea began to be explored, wasn’t it, that it was enormously technologically difficult,” he told his many thousands of primetime viewers.

“Technology develops and mankind’s technological ingenuity is very considerable, and so the ability to overcome technical barriers – and particularly depending on the price of oil – means that it’s going to be attractive for somebody. And risk capital is always available.”

Breach of the peace

Even if Rees-Mogg were right about technological advancements, let’s imagine the scene: a British-backed exploration vessel spuds a well in the Weddell Sea. This would immediately put the UK on a war footing with Argentina. It stakes a rival claim to a swathe of the Antarctic that overlaps substantially with ‘British Antarctic’.

International partners would shun the UK for breaching the terms of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The ensuing “gold rush” would be unstoppable and completely unregulated, since the consensus-based system of governance that has protected the South Pole region for almost 80 years would immediately come to an end.

The UK’s existing web of fiscal rules, royalties, regulations and standards exists to prevent exactly this sort of disastrous free-for-all occurring in the North Sea. The system is by no means perfect, but its core principle – to strike a balance between competing environmental, employment, tax and profit-sharing priorities – is sound. Thanks to these checks and balances, the North Sea became a standard-bearer for responsible offshore oil and gas exploration in global markets that flourished in its wake.

In praise of balance

Moreover, there is an actual energy transition occurring in the North Sea. Again, progress and trajectory leave a lot to be desired. But there is a broad consensus that the existing industry – which sustains 200,000 jobs and many hundreds of SMEs – needs to transition in lockstep with global efforts to rein in emissions and adopt cleaner fuels.

Granted, the size of the Antarctic prize – if proven – almost certainly dwarfs the 5 billion barrels left in the North Sea. But at least the remaining resources have already been quantified. Operators can develop this through existing infrastructure, skills and supply chains. This would help retain workforce talent that is at growing risk of being lost.

New oil drilling in the North Sea could also showcase cutting-edge emissions reductions technologies such as platform electrification or carbon capture. This is backed up by the North Sea Transition Deal’s target for a 50% reduction in production emissions by 2030, and the regulator’s offshore flaring and venting regime. These regulations are highly unlikely to be prioritised in any geopolitically motivated race to drill for Antarctic hydrocarbons.

An icebreaker at work. Seb Kennedy tackles the idea of exploiting the supposed oil riches of Antarctica.
Icebreaker. Source: Shutterstock.

Not a ‘real’ place

The desolate Antarctic region is the last frontier of human expansion, so perhaps a fairer comparison of the merits of mineral extraction is with other frontier plays. Here, too, there are compelling arguments in favour of retaining the existing prohibition on South Pole drilling while promoting it elsewhere.

Guyana is the newest kid on the oil block, with more than 11 billion barrels of oil-equivalent gross discovered recoverable resource and a potential multi-billion-barrel exploration upside. Production has soared to 645,000 barrels per day as of early 2024, all from the Stabroek block.

Production could climb further to 900,000 bpd by next year and reach 1.2 million bpd by 2027, creating 27,000 jobs in the process. The spectacular oil boom has sustained Guyana’s double-digit growth in GDP since 2020. The government expects a “tsunami of revenue inflows” totalling a staggering $5.2 billion from profit oil, royalties and interests in just four years.

Unlike the Antarctic, Guyana is a “real” place with an actual government and a functioning economy. The country’s oil boom has become a reference for other emerging economies keen to monetise their natural resources wealth. These include Namibia, Suriname and Tanzania.

Using oil revenues to support economic development can be justified on various levels, not least to generate funds needed to help these countries fund vital climate adaptation projects. These countries contributed virtually nothing to the existing atmospheric inventory of carbon dioxide. But they must bear the brunt of its effects.

This is even while developed nations stall over fulfilling their commitments to extend loss and damage climate finance.

Forever the final frontier

Plundering the Antarctic would do nothing to redress these historic failings. It would destroy a highly successful accord, which has protected the region’s status as one of four global commons. It would risk inflaming geopolitical tensions at a critically dangerous moment in human history.

Jacob Rees-Mogg might think this would all be worth it to “help my constituents to heat their homes”. However, the good folk of North East Somerset are projected to vote him out of office on July 4. Let’s hope that the next government prioritises environmentally responsible energy policies at home. There is little to be gained from embarking on a foolish misadventure in the permafrost of no mans land.

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