Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Antarctic Environmental Protection
and Mineral Resources

Prepared by James E. Mielke

Specialist in Marine and Earth Sciences
Science Policy Research Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

Antarctica, home to penguins, seals, and whales, and long of interest to explorers and scientists, has also attracted controversy as a potential source of petroleum and other mineral resources, although no recoverable deposits have been discovered. After seven years of negotiation, on June 2, 1988, in Wellington, New Zealand, the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (also known as CRAMRA or the "Wellington Convention") was adopted by consensus of the nations that were Consultative Parties (20 at that time) to the Antarctic Treaty. The convention, negotiated under the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty, would have established an environmentally based regulatory framework for possible future development of mineral resources in Antarctica. Almost immediately, however, it came under attack by those who feared that any development of mineral resources in Antarctica would adversely affect the pristine nature of the continent. Consequently, the negotiators representing the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (those countries with significant established research interests in Antarctica, of which there are now 26) negotiated a new measure to place a ban on mineral resource development in Antarctica and preserve its environmental quality. This measure is known as the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, with Annexes. It was submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent for ratification and was approved on October 7, 1992 (Treaty Doc. 102-22). Implementing legislation was passed by the 104th Congress in the Antarctic Science, Tourism, and Conservation Act of 1996, P.L. 104-227.

Background and Analysis

The primary purpose of the Antarctic Treaty is to ensure that "Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord." The treaty provides for freedom of scientific research in Antarctica and promotes international cooperation toward that end. Through Consultative Meetings and other provisions of the treaty, a growing complex of arrangements for regulating activities of nations in the Antarctic has evolved. This complex of arrangements is known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), the center of which is the treaty itself. Other aspects of the ATS include recommendations adopted at Consultative Meetings and separate agreements and conventions adopted at Special Consultative Meetings. Among the separate agreements and conventions that have been adopted are the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. CRAMRA was intended to complement these other agreements and create a more comprehensive management regime for Antarctica.

Though CRAMRA was intended, primarily, to establish an environmentally sound management regime for mineral resource activities, it was opposed by many who believed that any future minerals development would destroy the pristine environment. Consequently, on October 4, 1991, the Consultative Parties concluded the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty which specifically prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources: except scientific research: with the proviso that this prohibition cannot be amended by less than unanimous agreement of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties for at least 50 years after entry into force of the Protocol. Detailed mandatory rules for environmental protection pursuant to the provisions of the Protocol are contained in a series of annexes forming an integral part of the Protocol. Any modification of the minerals ban would require unanimous consent of the Consultative Parties and that an acceptably binding legal regime on Antarctic mineral resource activities be in place before the ban could be lifted.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science and commits the contracting parties to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems. The protocol establishes a Committee for Environmental Protection to provide advice and formulate recommendations to the Consultative Parties. The protocol is currently accompanied by five annexes (four were adopted with the Protocol and the fifth two weeks later) dealing with environmental impact assessment, conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora, waste disposal and management, prevention of marine pollution, and area protection and management. Additional annexes may be adopted and become effective in accordance with provisions of the Antarctic Treaty.

The Senate approved the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty on Oct. 7, 1992 (Treaty Doc. 102-22). The United States deposited instruments of ratification on April 18, 1997, following the passage of implementing legislation. Implementing legislation was passed by Congress and sent to the President on September 10, 1996. Implementing legislation was enacted to bring existing U.S. law into conformity with the Protocol and Annexes and to establish any new regulations or authority needed to ensure compliance with the Protocol. The Antarctic Science, Tourism, and Conservation Act of 1996 (').L. 104-227) was signed by the President on October 2, 1996 to implement the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Among its provisions, it amends the Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978 to (1) use procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act to meet the Protocol's mandates, (2) prohibit open burning or waste disposal, (3) ban mineral resource activities: and (4) amends the Act to Prevent Pollution from ships to protect marine resources.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. Although 50 years seems like a long time, there are still many who would not wish to have any future minerals development occur in Antarctica. These concerns are often embodied in terms of establishing Antarctica as a world park. In such an event, how might the contentious question of territorial claims be resolved?
  2. While the issue of mineral development activities in Antarctica is resolved for the present, the question of negotiating an acceptable minerals management regime for possible future use still remains. Is CRAMRA still viable in the future or if not, how might it be improved?

Sources and References for Further Information

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Antarctica: Environmental Protection Issues. Summary of a CR5 workshop. CRS Report for Congress 89-272 ENR. [by Susan R. Fletcher.] Washington, DC: Apr.10, 1989. 57 p. w/app.

---------. Environmental Effects of Recent Activities in Antarctica. CRS Report for Congress 89-439 SPR. [by M. Lynne Corn, Marjorie Ann Browne, Eugene H. Buck, and James E. Mielke.) Washington, DC: June 1988. 46 p.

---------. Potential Mineral Resources in Antarctica and the Antarctic Minerals Convention. CRS Report for Congress 90-72 SPR. [by James E. Mielke.) Washington, DC: Feb. 5, 1990. 52 p.

---------. Antarctica: Environmental Protection and Conservation of Resources. CRS Report for Congress 95-476. [by James E. Mielke and Marjorie Ann Browne.] Washington, DC: updated Oct. 8, 1996.

Kimball, Lee A. Southern Exposure: Deciding Antarctica's Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, Nov.1990. 39 p.

Splettstoesser, John F. and Gisela A. M. Dreschhoff, eds. Mineral Resources Potential of Antarctica. Antarctic Research Series, Vol.51. Washington, DC: American Geophysical Union, 1990. 310 p.

National Science Foundation. A National Science Foundation Strategy for Compliance with Environmental law in Antarctica. A Report to the Director from the Office of the General Counsel, National Science Foundation. Washington, DC: Dec.1989. 57 p.


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