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Penguins and oil don’t mix


Penguins and oil don’t mix. That’s why, for a quarter of a century, Antarctica has remained the world’s biggest No-Go zone for oil and gas exploitation and commercial mining.

Gentoo penguin, Antarctica © Rod DownieGentoo penguin, Antarctica © Rod Downie

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the mining ban under the Antarctic Treaty’s environmental protocol. In 1991, 29 countries agreed by consensus to ensure that the unique and pristine environment of Antarctica, and the waters that surround it, would remain protected from the risks and unavoidable impacts of destructive mining and high risk drilling for dirty oil.

There are now 37 governments that have signed up to the mining ban, one of the greatest international conservation successes of the 20th century, which is set out in a simple line of 13 words:

Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited (Article 7)

That’s nice and clear.

But unfortunately there’s a common misunderstanding that the mining ban expires after 50 years, and that there will be a wild-west style gold-rush for Antarctic riches.

That’s not the case.

The mining ban, and indeed all environmental requirements set out in the protocol, continue indefinitely. After 50 years, any government that has ratified the environmental protocol can request a diplomatic conference to review how it’s working. But it would require those governments to agree a modification to that simple line, and to agree a ‘binding legal regime on Antarctic mineral resource activities’ – Article 25 (5).

That’s not going to happen.

WWF's Rod Downie at the Antarctic Treaty meeting, Santiago, Chile © Rod DownieWWF’s Rod Downie at the Antarctic Treaty meeting, Santiago, Chile © Rod Downie

This week I’m participating in the XXXIX Antarctic Treaty meeting in Santiago, Chile. In fitting recognition for what has been a tremendous and enduring success, the Antarctic Treaty parties have reaffirmed through the Santiago Declaration their long term and ongoing commitment to the protection of the icy continent, and their resolution to uphold the minerals ban.

WWF welcomes the Santiago Declaration as a celebration of this wonderful achievement. We urge those governments that have yet to ratify the Environmental Protocol to do so without delay, and to ensure that ‘The Ice’ remains unblemished by the scars of mining and oil drilling for future generations.

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