A Russian move to size up offshore oil and gas potential in the Antarctic may not signal the start of a rush to develop the world's last great wilderness, but it does threaten to unravel a fragile political compromise that has protected the region for the last 60 years.
Russia's state-run geological surveyor Rosgeologia shot 4,400 km of new seismic in the Riiser-Larsen Sea, off the coast of Antarctic's Queen Maud Land earlier this year, it announced in February. The first seismic survey in the area by Russia since the late 1990s, Rosgeologia said the purpose was to assess the offshore oil and gas potential of the area using the latest technology.
Unlike the Arctic, which is open to hydrocarbon exploration, the Antarctic's mineral resources, including oil and gas, are protected by amendments to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, to which Russia is a signatory.
With the treaty setting aside Antarctica for only non-military scientific research, Russia's admission that it is mapping fossil fuel deposits in the region will likely raise diplomatic and environmental heckles alike.
Under the treaty's current Protocol on Environmental Protection, Russia would be in clear breach of the protocol if it followed up the seismic with any exploratory drilling.