Environmental groups yesterday condemned British plans to claim sovereignty over a vast tract of the seabed off the coast of Antarctica, with Greenpeace and WWF expressing dismay that the Foreign Office was contemplating possible oil, gas and mineral exploration in the region.
The Guardian yesterday revealed that the Foreign Office was preparing to submit a rights claim to the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf (CLCS) for 1m sq km (386,000 sq miles) of seabed off the coast of the British Antarctic Territory.
Any claim, it is alleged, could threaten the stability of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which froze territorial disputes on the world's least explored continent. Drilling for oil or gas would disrupt the fragile marine ecology of the Southern Ocean, environmentalists warn.
Simon Walmsley, head of WWF-UK's marine programme, insisted: "There should be no oil or gas exploitation in Antarctica. It's such a fragile habitat. Some of the sea creatures there are killed by a rise in temperature of merely 1.1C. It would be a body blow for the whole region.
"Knowing about these continental shelf claims, I question whether the government is serious enough to go through with this claim. It may be a tactic. It's something a lot of countries are doing as they have a deadline [of May 2009] for their claims. In no way would we support oil or gas exploration in Antarctica. The mechanism of the treaty is a good one. [Claims] like this won't help."
Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK's climate change campaign manager, called the move "hugely irresponsible". He said: "It's astonishing that the government is leading the international charge on climate change but also leading the charge for an oil rush ... Antarctica is the last great wilderness and the poles are going to get the hardest hit by climate change. [This move] is wrong-headed however you look at it."
Chile and Argentina, which claim Antarctic territories which overlap the British Antarctic Territory, could also submit claims for similar seabed areas. Yesterday the Chilean and Argentinian embassies in London did not comment. However, the director of Chile's Antarctic Institute, JosÃƒ© Retamales Espinoza, said he was sure his government would look into the issue.
Last month, after the Guardian revealed the UK also planned to claim seabed adjacent to the Falklands Islands, the Argentinian president, NÃƒ©stor Kirchner, told the UN: "It's time the UK puts an end to the anachronism of retaining an occupation dating back to colonial times."
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, which yesterday noted that Australia and New Zealand had already lodged CLCS claims for Antarctic seabed, said: "To safeguard our interests ... we are submitting a claim. We are one of many coastal states submitting various claims."
© 2007 The Guardian