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Don’t Blast Antarctica!

SA government must in future refuse port entry for any research vessels engaged in Antarctic oil and gas exploration

Letter of demand to RSA government.


President Cyril Ramaphosa; Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy; Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor; Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula; the Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA); ​​​​​the South African Maritime Safety Authority​ (SAMSA) and the Executive Mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis.

Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace Cape Town volunteers, Green Connection, other activists and concerned citizens have held numerous protests over the arrival of Russia’s polar research vessel, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, in the port of Cape Town on 28 January.

We strongly object to the harmful oil and gas exploration that the ship has been carrying out in the Antarctic region, which is a globally important marine sanctuary – and the fact that the port of Cape Town has served as its launch pad for more than two decades.

Hydrocarbon exploration in Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean constitutes a breach of the 55-nation Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), to which both Russia and South Africa are signatories. Under Article 7 of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol), all mineral resource activity in the Antarctic has been banned since 1998.

We call on you to fulfil your moral duty towards the citizens and future generations of South Africa; as well as Africa as the most climate vulnerable continent; and the whole world by:

  • Refusing port entry to the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, and all other vessels engaged in similar harmful hydrocarbon exploration activities in the Antarctic region.

  • Demanding that the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky and similar vessels prove they 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.

  • Tabling a formal proposal to the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) to explicitly and permanently ban hydrocarbon extraction in Antarctica, as suggested by this paper. This will revitalise Antarctic high-level diplomacy and enhance global cooperation on climate action.

The Akademik Alexander Karpinsky employs seismic technology which is scientifically proven to disturb the essential behaviours of marine animals like whales and dolphins. It can result in hearing loss, organ rupture and mass stranding. It also kills whales’ primary food source krill, as well as plankton that forms the basis of the food chain on which all marine life depends.

Hence the ship 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.

Beyond seismic blasting’s immediate harm to marine life also lies an even more sinister threat.

In February 2020, Russia’s state-owned Rosgeo, announced that the Karpinsky, which belongs to its subsidiary Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition, had successfully completed a marine geophysical exploration expedition to the Antarctic Shelf. It identified 70 billion tons (500 billion barrels) of potential oil and gas resources beneath the Southern Ocean, which is equal to 15 years of global oil consumption.

There is no other plausible reason for Russia to have built up this detailed hydrocarbon inventory, other than that it hopes to start extracting some of these oil or gas resources at some point in the medium- or long-term future. If that happens, Antarctica – and the whole world – will suffer even more devastating impacts.

The Antarctic region is already under severe climate change distress and melting at an average rate of 150 billion tonnes per year. West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is in a phase of fast retreat and a total loss of the glacier and surrounding ice could raise global sea levels from three to ten feet, with disastrous consequences for Africa, the continent most at risk to climate change.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that, if we are to remain below the 2°C limit and prevent catastrophic climate change, fossil fuel exploration must end.

Climate change is the defining crisis of our time and no corner of the globe is immune to its devastating consequences. The UN’s secretary-general António Guterres has described continued fossil fuels exploitation as “moral and economic madness.”

As one of 29 countries – and the only African country – with decision-making powers under Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), South Africa must ensure that sanity prevails – for the sake of Africa.

On behalf of:

  • Extinction Rebellion Cape Town
  • Greenpeace Africa Cape Town Volunteers
  • The Green Connection
  • Oceans Not Oil
  • South African Fishers Collective
  • Project 90
  • Helderberg Ocean Awareness Movement
  • Sustaining The Wild Coast

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