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Antarctic agreement

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PIE91/117G 1 May 1991


I have seen reports today in which the Australian Mining Industry Council has described the Federal Government's initiative in winning a 50 year moratorium on mining in Antarctica as a "political stunt".

AMIC's attitude to this issue does little to advance its national or international status as a responsible peak industry organisation.

The Government's initiative is a victory for commonsense and very much in the interests of Australians - present and future.

I have consistently supported the Government's initiatives in relation to Antarctica, and have raised the issue on many occasions and sought international support.

Only recently I spoke in Parliament in support of the Antarctic Mining Prohibition Bill.

The Australian mining industry makes a vital contribution to Australia's prosperity and our major companies are world class performers in every respect.

The industry has developed sophisticated techniques of environmental management and rehabilitation, and its recent record in this area is extremely good.

However, in Antarctica, even with the best laid plans and implementation, taking into account the harshness and remoteness, the chances of things going wrong are so much greater. Moreover, environmental techniques used in Australia would not be much use in the totally different Antarctica

environment, where similar results would only be achieved by trial and error.

In my view AMIC's comments are ill-informed and out of touch with national and international sentiment.

Contact : Lisa Amor (02)277 7480 COMMONWEALTH 1 PARLiA/ΆΞΝϊΑΓ.Î¥ LiLRARY l MICAH

Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Phone: (06) 2777480 Fax: (06) 2734154


13 March 1991 (p. 1858) Antarctic Mining Prohibition Bill

M r GRIFFITHS (Maribymong—Min­ ister for Resources) (11.04)—I rise to sup­ port strongly the Antarctic Mining Prohibition Bill, which prohibits mining

in the Australian Antarctic Territory and prohibits Australian nationals from par­ ticipating in mining elsewhere in Antarc­ tica. I am not a Johnny-come-lately to this issue. Over the last couple of years, I

have taken opportunities presented to me in meeting colleagues from other parlia­ ments around the world and in visiting other countries. I have raised this issue on many occasions and sought inter­ national support.

As the Parliament will be aware, when Australia initially took what should be regarded as a quite courageous initiative in this regard, there was little inter­

national support for our position; and I commend the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the En­ vironment, Tourism and Territories (Mrs

Kelly) and all those other people in the Government who have worked so hard over an extended timeframe in ensuring that this matter moves towards fruition.

The ban will ensure that the fragile Ant­ arctic environment will not be irreparably harmed, and I think there would be a consensus in this House in relation to

that. I should add that in my view the Australian mining industry will not be disadvantaged by the prohibition but, even if it was, I would still support the Bill

because I strongly believe that the pres­ ervation of the environmental values of Antarctica outweigh commercial consid­ erations.

The environmental values of Antarctica are, by any measure, unique. The Antarc­ tic comprises about a tenth of the world’s land surface and a tenth of the oceans. It

ia the highest, windiest, coldest and driest continent. It is also the most remote re­ gion, without any indigenous population. Consequently, o f all continents it most

nearly approaches a pristine condition.

More than 45 per cent of the Antarctica coastline is fringed with iceshelves or gla­ ciers, and it is the intervening ice nee stretches that provide the most favourable conditions for plants and invertebrate an­

imals, as well as coastal breeding sites for sea birds and some seal species. These limited snow free coastal areas also pro­ vide the best sites for scientific research

stations. These areas would be the first

candidates for any minerals activity, yet it is these areas which are very susceptible to disturbance and pollution and where attention to environmental impacts needs to be focused.

The overall importance of Antarctica is, however, much greater than this. The iceshelves, sea ice and icebergs are a treasure-house of archival records of cli­ matic changes which have occurred in past ages. The apparently untouched icecap it­ self constitutes an archive of man made pollutants, the rate of deposition o f which

reflects changes in worldwide baseline lev­ els. These massive ice structures are a laboratory for scientific research on the effects of worldwide weather changes, and

for this reason alone should be preserved against commercial activity.

Antarctica affects the world’s environ­ ment in many ways, not the least o f which is that, because of its icecap, it acts as the earth’s major heat sink. This huge ice blanket reflects incoming solar radiation, resulting in extreme temperature drops in the lower latitudes. This in turn exerts a major influence on the world’s climate and drives the major currents o f the world’s oceans, so changes in the Antarc­ tica are likely to have global impacts.

The thinning of the protective overlay­ ing ozone layer has already been demon­ strated, and the region is likely to be affected by future climatic warming with consequential effects on sea levels. The

region’s main resource is, therefore, not its potential for commercial exploitation but its potential for scientific discoveries that help us understand global conditions

and processes. In short, Antarctica con­ tributes to understanding and monitoring global change.

With these considerations in mind, it must be stressed that mining in Antarc­ tica would have significant environmental impacts, even if there were no environ­ mental accidents. In Antarctica, even with the best laid plans and implementation, taking into account the harshness and re­ moteness of the place, the chances of things going wrong are so much the greater. Australia is geographically rela­

tively close to Antarctica, and conse­ quently we are more aware than most other countries of the environmental val­ ues of that continent. Consequently, we

make no apologies for being concerned about environmental values at the ex­

pense o f any dubious and hypothetical returns from Antarctic mineral explora­ tion. Let me now make a few brief points about the mineral resources of Antarctica and the possibility of mining activity there. I raise this because it is often said that we are a resource-rich country which

is being very selfish in denying mining in A ntarctica to other countries. Whilst it is known that mineral deposits do occur in Antarctica, what is known is very scanty because sustained mineral exploration has been lim ited by the extreme climatic con­

ditions, as well as by some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest

continent with a land mass some 1.5 time· the size o f Australia. It is covered by an icecap over some 98 per cent o f its sur­ face, which is, on average, some two to three kilometres deep. The 2 per cent that

is ice-free is located mainly in the moun­ tains, which are not easily accessible, and . in some coastal areas. Mineralisation has been reported at a

num ber o f localities during regional sur­ veys over the last 40 years or so. The

m ost widely quoted rocks are the banded iron formations of the Prince Charles M ountains, and although extensive, they are not large compared to similar fonna- tions elsewhere, and they are of relatively low grade— some 35 per cent Fe—^com­ pared with 60 per cent plus Fe which is

readily available in Australia, to give some indication o f the qualitative difference. It it therefore unlikely that the Antarctic iron ore could compete with that from

A ustralia, or for that matter with that from any other major iron ore exporting country.

D itto with coal. Antarctic coal deposits, whilst extensive, are too scattered to make even the broadest assessments, let alone to m ake any judgment about their eco­

nom ic viability. A similar story exists in relation to other minerals. Occurrences of som e 20 other types o f metallic minerals, 15 non-metallic minerals, and rocks used elsewhere as bulk minerals, have been re­ ported. A few localities have been studied

from an academic point o f view during regional mapping, and it is not possible to say that economic deposits exist.

T here are only two hydrocarbon shows reported from the Antarctic region. No oil o r gas seeps are known, nor have any potential hydrocarbon bearing structures been identified, either by geophysical sur­

veying o r geological mapping. In the ab­ sence o f reliable data, any published assessments o f petroleum potential of the region m ust be regarded as both specula­ tive and hypothetical.

If the extraordinarily high cost o f explo­ ration and extraction were not enough, the transportation of these minerals would be a nightmare, and the costs astronomi­ cal. Offshore there are iceshelves up to 200 metres thick covering much of the Antarctic continental shelf, with sea ice o f an average thickness of 1.5 metres ex­ tending some 1,000 kilometres from the coastline. Commercial navigation would be very difficult, to say the least, as tabu­ lar icebergs have been observed with di­ mensions of more than 60 kilometres by

100 kilometres, and these can be as high as 80 metres above sea level, and are known to have grounded at depths o f 500 metres. This combination of iceshelves, sea ice and icebergs also makes offshore drilling platforms and other such offshore installations very risky propositions in­ deed.

From what I have just outlined it can be readily appreciated, I believe, that mining would not be an economic prop­ osition today, and in my view it is cer­ tainly beyond the limits of present day technology.

Another argument sometimes put by opponents of this Bill is that we are de­ nying the opportunity o f exploiting Ant­ arctica in case mineral resource shortages occur in the future. I reject this argument also. Some of us remember the ‘gloom and doom* prophecies of the Club of Rome during the 1970s which forecast serious resource shortages in the near future. These have now been discredited. These prophecies have not eventuated •imply because, as working mines became depleted or exhausted, those deposits which were previously thought to be une­ conomic became viable through improve­ ments in technology and management in the mining industry. This continuing pro­ cess of extending the economic life of resources will undoubtedly continue in the future. I would suggest, as Minister for Resources, that mining companies would be far better off investing in Australia, rather than thinking of the options or possibilities in Antarctica.

But there is also the important environ­ mental dimension to this issue. In Aus­ tralia the mining industry has developed sophisticated techniques of environmental

management and rehabilitation o f mined areas, and its recent record in this area is extremely good. That is little understood, I think, by many in the Australian com­ munity, and, I regret to say, by many in this House. These techniques would not be o f much use in the totally different Antarctic environment, however, where similar results could be achieved only by trial and error.

If mining was allowed, it would be un­ der an international regime such as the Antarctic Minerals Convention, which we have refused to sign, and as a result we

would lose control of any environmental conditions which we might wish to im­ pose. In Australia we have well-estab­

lished regulations for environmental controls, which are familiar to the indus­ try and to governments. These regulations are working well, and are constantly being

improved in the light of extensive and accumulating experience and knowledge.

In Antarctica the whole process of en­ vironment control would be, by defini­ tion, experimental, with an untried international administrative authority

seeking to develop new rules and proce­ dures to cope with what I would describe as a unique situation. As outlined above, I believe that the Bill does not disadvantage the Australian

mining industry whilst performing the es­ sential function of protecting the fragile and very important environment of Ant­ arctica.

I noted that in his remarks to the House earlier, the shadow environment Minister claimed credit, and correctly so, for the abolition of mineral sands mining on

Fraser Island during the period of the Fraser Government. As with many other issues, there is some embarrassing back­ ground to that particular plan, because the environment Minister comes into this chamber with no environmental policy clothes, if he uses that particular example, because------

M r Downer—The environment Minis­ ter? M r GRIFFITHS— I meant the shadow environment Minister. On this issue, where he has asserted, and correctly so,

that the Fraser Government prevented mineral sands mining on Fraser Island, it did so, as we all know, by utilising export control powers over mineral sands. The honourable member for Mayo nods his head in agreement, as he must. It is a fact o f life.

M r Costello—The Labor Party would never do that. "

M r GRIFFITHS— Let me explain why that is a very embarrassing issue for the Opposition to raise. A cursory reading of the Opposition’s resources and energy polity document, circulated at the last election, will lead to the paragraph headed ’Export controls’, which states:

We will abolish all export controls on the min­ erals and metals sector including those applicable to iron ore. The only exception to this being uranium as specified in section 9.

What the Opposition specifically indi­ cated in terms of its platform at the last election was that it will move to the abo­ lition of all export controls in the min­ erals and metals sector, with the exception of those on uranium. That ought to weigh heavily on anyone who has an interest in the ability of Federal governments to have an influence in the proper environmental management of some of these complex areas which include mineral sands.

Whilst the shadow Minister raises the Fraser Government record in relation to Fraser Island, he fails to advise the House, and the wider community, that the only power available to the Federal Govern­ ment to have that sort of impact is spe­ cifically precluded by the Opposition’s promise to abolish that power. One might ask: if the policy is such for the minerals and mining sector, it is only the next, small philosophical step to abolish the export control powers over the timber in­ dustry. Were that to be the case, and I suspect that is the hidden agenda with the Opposition------

M r Downer—Why would you say that? M r GRIFFITHS—WeU, it is consist­ ent. Mr Downer—It is not our policy.

Mr GRIFFITHS—No, because the members opposite would not have the courage to suggest that. In terms of con­ sistency, which is something we hear a lot about from the Opposition, the honour­ able member for Mayo should explain to the House—and he should have the op­ portunity to do so very shortly—why the Opposition will abolish the export control powers on mineral sands which are de­ posited in some of the most environmen­ tally sensitive areas of this country, including the coastal regions of Queens­ land and some o f the islands in that area, and not extend that abolition of export licences if the rationale is as has been outlined in its policy prescriptions? It is a very important point for this House to ponder.

In any event, if we forget the issue of the export control powers in so far as they affect the timber industry—I remind the House that if they were abolished it would leave the Commonwealth Government powerless to have any influence over proper forest management practices and all the other related issues in. relation to the timber industry—and even if we focus on the specific promise, that is, the abo­ lition of export control powers for min­ eral sands, where is the Federal

Government going to gain the power to have a positive influence on proper min­ ing practices, rehabilitation practices, pricing arrangements and so on in rela­

tion to this important sector?

If the Opposition responds by indicat­ ing that there may be other powers in its arm oury in relation to which it would discharge the obvious responsibility of a national government in these areas, then a further reading of the Opposition’s re­ sources and energy policy might be a pro­ ductive exercise. Under the heading ‘Federal-State Responsibility* there is this paragraph: We acknowledge, the constitutional division of responsibilities, particularly State control over ac­ cess to land and mining rights. Our policy is that this should not be circumvented by the improper

use o f unrelated powers asserted by the Govern­ ment.

M r Downer—You think proper use is okay, do you? M r GRIFFITHS— Let us get down to tintacks. The Opposition is proposing the abolition o f export control powers over

mineral sands. The honourable member does concur with that assessment of the Opposition’s own policy. O f course, he does; he cannot do otherwise. In that case, the Federal Government—unless it util­ ises other powers—is absolutely powerless in relatio n to these issues. The

O pposition’s policy prescription specifi­ cally arrives at the conclusion that the Federal Government will, in effect, vacate the field. That is a position that is unt­ enable. It is a position that is untenable on its merits. It is a position that is unt­ enable in particular on its environmental

sensitivity merits, and it ought not be supported by anyone in this chamber, in­ cluding the Opposition.

I would suggest—in what I hope is a constructive way—that this document, which was obviously knocked together at the last minute, as was consistent with the approach taken to most of the policy areas prior to the last------

M r Downer—You didn’t have a policy.

M r G RIFFITH S—Our policies are writ large every day in this chamber. The honourable member should show me the Opposition’s policy on timber and paper


M r Downer—Let’s see your policy doc­ ument.

M r GRIFFITHS—I will send him a num ber o f them which I have formulated and which have now been carried by Cab­ inet.

M r GRIFFITHS— It is Government policy that can be reviewed and criticised by the Opposition. That is obviously an ongoing role for oppositions. But the Opposition equally has a responsibility to be tested not on something like ‘the Pro­

fessor visiting’ issues and making a few off the top of the head remarks about those things, but to come up with some­ thing a little more constructive than this shallow and dangerous document. If the conservation movement in this country had any brains it would be looking very closely at this document to gamer some degree of difference between a genuine government concerned about integrating these issues and outcomes and an

Opposition that really rushes around and tries to pick up a few votes whenever there is a disaffected group in relation to one particular issue. I commend the Bill

to the House.

M r Downer—You show me the Labor Party policy document, not the speeches you have made.