OIL spilling from a sunken Argentine supply ship not only threatens one of Antarctica's richest wildlife areas, but also could undermine an agreement - not yet ratified - that would allow mining on the continent. The spill is providing fresh fuel for environmental groups campaigning to keep Antarctica off limits to development.
``This proves to people that oil and Antarctica just don't mix. And this whole initiative to open Antarctica up to mining is all wrong and shouldn't go ahead,'' says Michael Bland of Greenpeace Australia.
Indeed, in recognition of the region's scientific value and delicate ecosystem, there is currently a voluntary ban on mining. So, no one knows exactly what minerals lie beneath the icy surface. Besides, it is too expensive with existing technology and today's mineral prices to go digging now. But there is enough evidence of oil, gold, platinum, and other minerals for mining companies to be drawing up plans for exploration.
Last May, 33 nations forged the Antarctic Minerals Convention - a set of strict rules under which mining could be conducted in Antarctica. No exploration can begin until 16 nations (out of the 20 voting nations party to a 1959 treaty regulating activities in Antarctica) sign and ratify the agreement. To date, 10 have signed.
Australia, a key player, is dragging its heels. It has the largest territorial claims (among seven nations claiming sovereignty) to Antarctica. Australia's Treasurer Paul Keating - Labor Party heir apparent to Prime Minister Bob Hawke - objects to the Mineral Convention on economic and environmental grounds.
``I do not believe Australia should sign. ... Signature would mean we would, in effect, concede our economic claims over Antarctica for virtually nothing, forfeiting our sovereignty over Antarctica, and opening up the possibility of [foreign] subsidized [mining] production competing with Australian mineral producers,'' wrote Mr. Keating in a September letter to the minister of foreign affairs.
At the moment, the Hawke government is split over the issue. Diplomatic pressure to sign may come from pro-mining nations (the United States, Japan, West Germany, Britain, and France). But this oil spill could tip the balance the other way.
``We're watching it and we're concerned. [But] not signing won't necessarily prevent mining,'' says a spokesman for Australia's environment minister.
This oil spill may be indicative of problems ahead. ``Prospecting and exploration means an increase in supply ships, drilling ships, and eventually oil tankers and pipelines. But history has shown Antarctica isn't a safe place to take a ship,'' says Catherine Wallace, the New Zealand representative of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, composed of 170 environmental groups from 35 nations.
The Jan. 28 Argentine shipwreck highlights just how unprepared governments are for dealing with accidents in this remote, harsh climate. ``This is the easiest kind of accident to deal with: it's mid-summer, in the banana belt of Antarctica - warm and populated - and still it's taken nearly a week for ships to get there and begin clean up operations,'' says Ms. Wallace.
But Christopher Beeby, the New Zealand diplomat who chaired the mineral negotiations, sees the oil spill as a case for signing the convention. ``If this ship had been engaged in mineral resource activity, it would have been subject to specific environmental controls to prevent an oil spill, perhaps requiring different shipping routes, plus it would be liable for clean up.''
The Argentine government is playing down the incident, calling it a minor spill. But the ship's proximity to an area teeming with Antarctic wildlife - less than 2 miles offshore from the US Palmer Station research base - has American scientists concerned. The spill jeopardizes two decades of research - the longest Antarctic biological database. And the toll on penguins, seals, and crustaceans is mounting. The annual hatch of thousands of penguins, due to take their first swim this week, are in danger.
Oil takes much longer to decompose in frigid climates - depending on the type, as long as 100 years. And politically, this spill will not be soon forgotten.
It will almost certainly be a key topic in Paris later this year when diplomats meet to review the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. And even if countries, such as Australia, do sign the Antarctic Minerals Convention, the ratification process could take several years.
Environmentalists will use this time and any similar accidents to bolster their case for keeping a ban on Antarctic mining.