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Mr. Foulkes : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a statement by the French Prime Minister followed by a similar statement by the French President should be enough to convince him, if not the Minister, that it is the view of the French Government?
Mr. Burns : I understand the hon. Gentleman's problems. He is clutching at straws in an effort to restore the credibility of the Opposition's amendment. However, the Minister announced today that up to this moment the French have not made an announcement about their intentions. That assurance is good enough for me.
The Bill is of far greater significance than the number of hon. Members who are in the Chamber would suggest. Its ramifications are significant. They will affect the Antarctic and the rest of the world. It is important that the Bill should be passed so that the convention on the regulation of Antarctic mineral resource activities can be ratified. The Bill is a far- ranging environmental protection measure. It will prohibit mineral prospecting activities in Antarctica by British companies and nationals, apart from prospecting activities that are authorised by the United Kingdom Government. That displays a great degree of foresight.
Although interest in the desire economically to exploit minerals in the area is negligible at present, that may not always be the case. Although traces of a wide range of hard rock minerals have been found in Antarctica, none has been found in amounts that would merit serious commercial interest. However, what is not known is whether any hydrocarbon resources exist in economically interesting amounts. Without the protective measures that are provided for in the convention and the Bill, there could be a free -for-all that would greatly damage the environment and the ecological balance of the Antarctic. That is why the Bill displays great foresight and is an important insurance policy for the protection of the future of that region.
I welcome the fact that under article 3 of the convention no mineral resource activities may take place, except those specifically authorised. That procedure is further
Column 230strengthened under article 13 which prevents mineral resource activities in any area that is designated as a specially protected area or as a site of special scientific interest, or in any other area that is designated by the convention as a protected area because of its historic, ecological, environmental or other values. All the checks and balances on mineral resource activity are weighted in favour of environmental protection. I warmly welcome the fact that in every case the interests of the environment will be put first and will be given the benefit of the doubt, if any doubt exists. To my mind, that is an extremely important safeguard. It will have serious ramifications, in that effectively it will ensure the genuine environmental protection that all of us, I believe, passionately desire should be provided for the area.
I know that there is a school of thought that believes that there should be a total ban on mineral resource activities, or a turning of the Antarctic into a world park. In reality, neither proposition would be workable, even if the latter proposition were desirable. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) cared to listen instead of shouting from a sedentary position, he would have the benefit of the knowledge that I am about to impart to him.
Attempts to negotiate such a ban failed on five different occasions between 1972 and 1979. That is a powerful enough example of how a ban would not work. If time after time agreement cannot be reached, there is no point in continuing to hit one's head against a brick wall. The present convention took seven years of hard slog to negotiate. Failure to ratify it would lead to a dangerous and damaging free-for-all, which would leave the Antarctic at the mercy of irresponsible prospectors from all over the world who would not give a fig for the damage that they might do to the environment. They would be in the Antarctic for purely selfish reasons--to try to maximise the amount of money that they could get from successful mineral prospecting.
Similarly, I share the Government's view that to give the Antarctic a new designation as some sort of world park would not protect the environment. It must be borne in mind, as an argument against the creation of a world park, that the Antarctic treaty has worked effectively for over a quarter of a century. It would not be wise to go down a path that we do not know. That is what we would do if we adopted that course of action.
I congratulate the Government on the speed with which they have introduced the Bill. I trust and hope that the other nations that have an interest in the Antarctic will pass similar legislation so that the convention can be ratified as soon as possible, notwithstanding the problems that we have with Australia. The Bill will be an important step towards providing further protection for the environment of that region. It will be welcomed by all reasonable people, who see the need for such a measure.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : The analysis given by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) of the relevant position of the Labour party in this House and the other place is of some passing interest, but for him to have to resort to the arguments that he used when he criticised the amendment moved by the hon.
Column 231Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) showed that his case is as thin as some parts of the ozone layer over the Antarctic.
The Minister said that this was a technical measure, but according to the arguments used in the debate, it is a technical measure of considerable significance. The point which is at the heart of the debate is the Government's assertion that the Bill relates only to prospecting. In a technical sense, that may be true. However, as the right hon. Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert) said so clearly, no company or nation will embark on prospecting just for the sake of prospecting : they will do so only if they can see an ultimate end in sight. Perhaps, many years from now, the House will be presented with yet another Bill to take us one step closer to that end, which is the development of Antarctica's mineral resources.
Even if we accept that the Bill is designed purely to allow for prospecting, those activities will lead to many onshore activities. Pollution will result from the disposal of waste. The number of prospecting activities is not spelled out. Those activities could proliferate. The Minister has not said anything about the extent of the prospecting activities and their pollution consequences. Extensive use is made of drilling muds in the North sea. Drilling in Antarctica might involve similar materials, which could lead to a limited or even to a large amount of pollution.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : Does my hon. Friend not acknowledge that the temperature in the Antarctic is such that, almost inevitably, prospecting companies would have to use oil-based rather than water-based muds and that that would increase the pollution risk in ways that cannot now be envisaged?
The question has been raised as to what would happen if there were no regulation. In some respects that is the best argument that has been presented, but it appeared to be something of a scare story. As I said in an earlier intervention, it is quite clear from the activities and the policies of oil companies that they look for areas of political stability before investing substantial sums of money on which they expect a return. I do not believe for one moment that they would invest vast sums of money in an area where they feared that there was not that stability and where there were arguments about sovereignty.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) said that the Soviet Union might set up a drilling base and take the oil back to the Soviet Union. Of course, a national Government are in a different position from a company, but the Soviet Union was not one of the countries that claimed territorial sovereignty in Antarctica, and it was an early signatory to the Antarctica treaty. Given its history of dealing with the area, it would be very loth to take a provocative stance in asserting mineral right claims. That argument was something of a red herring.
Enforcement is a very important issue. For some comparison, I looked at the eighth report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution published in 1981, which dealt with oil spillages at sea. It considered the problems of controlling oil pollution at sea. There had
Column 232been some suggestion that the North sea should be designated a special area to help enforcement procedures. In paragraph 7.83, the report reached this conclusion :
"The problem is not the standards set for discharges to European waters, but the possibility of enforcing them. More stringent requirements would not reduce the latter problem : indeed, the experience in the Mediterranean shows the limited value of more stringent requirements while waste disposal facilities in ports are lacking, and the ability to deter offenders is poor."
The report continued :
"There are two aspects to this problem. The first, which we considered, Chapter VII, is the jurisdictional difficulty arising in dealing with vessels which for the most part travel outside territorial waters, and which are often not registered in the UK. The second, which we consider below, is the practical difficulties of detecting an offence and securing a successful prosecution." I accept that there are some differences between mobile vessels and stations in Antarctica, but the main issue is the same : if it is impossible to try and enforce pollution control in the pond of the North sea, how in the world will we ever properly enforce it in the vast continent of Antarctica?
We are told that clause 8 makes provision for inspectors, so we can assume that the inspectors will be trying to enforce it. The paragraph of the explanatory and financial memorandum which deals with manpower states : "The Bill is unlikely to have a significant effect on public sector manpower. Depending on the number and timing of licence applications, it is anticipated that the necessary administration will be carried out by existing staff. Inspectors and observers will be appointed on an ad hoc basis but are unlikely to be needed for some years or in great numbers."
So they will not be appointed for some time, and when they are appointed it will be on an ad hoc basis. That does not appear to be a regime that would sensibly or effectively enforce proper environmental consideration.
Mr. Wallace : My point is clear from the explanatory notes. It is not envisaged that there will be a vast army of inspectors who will be appointed only on an ad hoc basis. Given the vast square miles of the Antarctic continent, it does not appear that that will be an effective means of enforcing environmental control.
What is meant by "significant damage"? The hon. Member for Walthamstow referred to what the French did last year in blasting a wildlife area to make a hard runway. As far as I am aware, little has been done in response to that. Even the present enforcement cannot be accepted as entirely satisfactory.
The protection of the environment is of paramount consideration in Antarctica. Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that, as it has been undisturbed for so many years, it is almost an ideal place to test pollution and to make comparisons which are not possible in other parts of the world : the hole in the ozone layer was discovered by British scientists over Antarctica. But even with the best will in the world, we cannot exclude the possibility of an accident. Even a very tight regime enforcing control cannot exclude an accident. An Argentine tanker hit rocks near Palmer Station south of Cape Horn only last year and caused an oil spill. The Exxon Valdez caused tremendous damage to the ecosystem in the Arctic. Those risks cannot be excluded, even with a properly enforced environmental protection regime. Therefore, we should not take the risk of moving towards prospecting and development.
Column 233As for timing, in an intervention in the Minister's speech, the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) pointed out that prospecting would not take place for a considerable time. That point is echoed in the explanatory memorandum reference to manpower. If it will not happen for a long time, what would be lost by withdrawing the Bill? If Australia does not sign the convention, the Bill will be defunct anyway. We have time to try to achieve something more worth while. I cannot accept that, because it was impossible to reach agreement in the 1970s, it will be impossible to reach agreement in the 1990s. The right hon. Member for Dudley, East expressed that far more clearly.
In 1972, the Minister was the chairman of the Cambridge university Conservative association. So much has happened since then. The following year there was great speculation as to whether the price of petrol would reach 50p a gallon. The world has changed enormously since then. We have become much more aware of the environmental conditions and the damage which man's activities can do to the atmosphere. That sensitivity has prompted the Australian Government to take the stand that they have, and the French Government to show signs of doing the same.
A comprehensive environmental protection policy would be far more easily achieved today than it was in the 1970s. We should make the effort. We should not allow the failures of the past to distract us from trying to achieve some success for the future. I do not believe that future generations will thank us if, having kept one part of our planet still relatively intact, we embarked upon a course of action that would ruin it.
Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage) : I welcome the Bill. I share the fears about the environmental horrors that could result if we do not have controls and constraints. We must pay great attention to that part of the world which, fortunately, has been preserved largely intact without great damage to its systems. I share the Opposition's worries about possible developments but, unlike the Opposition and Greenpeace, I believe that the Bill's proposals and the convention are steps towards bringing, rather than reducing, control. Greenpeace is utopian in wishing for a quick agreement on a world environmental park, perhaps under the control of the United Nations. Over the past few years, we have had a treaty that has enabled reasonable control to be maintained. The Bill, which underlines the convention, strengthens that treaty's effects and we should support it for that reason.
It is all very well people saying that in an ideal world we should be able to get everyone everywhere to agree that there will be no exploitation of resources in Antarctica. In the difficult world of international relations, it is vital to achieve consensus, such as that achieved during the work on the convention. As one of my colleagues rightly said, during the 1970s there were several attempts to have a moratorium on any form of mineral exploitation. Those attempts failed. Six or seven years had to elapse before the convention was achieved.
I hope that our work does not stop and that we will proceed with Australia, France and other countries--in the hope that they are not being hypocritical--towards
Column 234achieving absolute bans on mineral extraction. That is my preference, but we have a convention now. We should take what agreement has been reached rather than cast it aside and say that we want a utopia that is not immediately realisable.
I have heard the comments about prospecting and the suggestion that people will not prospect until they see a possibility of exploitation, but that argument can be used both ways. Any major company that thought that there was a prospect of mineral exploitation would be optimistic if it thought that it could therefore justify spending substantial sums on prospecting. I do not think that there will be significant prospecting activity in Antarctica, although, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, it may be difficult to distinguish between prospecting and research, which is a legitimate activity. We could get into an enormous muddle if, while imposing a blanket ban on prospecting, we tried to inhibit legitimate research activities. I am not concerned about the prospecting option that is left in the Bill, which can apply only with the permission of the United Kingdom Government. After all, unless there is an assurance that companies can develop the Antarctic prospecting possibilities, why should they go ahead? That opening avoids the complications that could arise from scientific research. Prospecting is not the threat to the Antarctic environment that the Opposition have suggested.
I welcome the Bill because it provides much-longed-for controls on mineral exploitation in the Antarctic. It is a major step towards preventing mineral exploitation and it should be welcomed by the House.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : The House is trying to find the best way of protecting one of the last unspoilt wildernesses on the planet, so I am sorry that some hon. Members have tried to turn the debate into a knockabout. I accept that, if we can get only certain kinds of agreements, we should participate and try to get the best Bill that we can. That is why Labour peers in the other place participated, negotiated and tried to be constructive. However, it has become apparent that there is a distinct likelihood that the agreement could fail because some states may boycott it. If that is the case, it is reasonable for the Government to re- examine the matter and try to take a different view.
As one hon. Member has said, the ideal would be to protect the Antarctic from any mineral exploitation. I do not accept that we are talking only about investigation and that it is a low risk. When firms and various people go to the Antarctic and take samples and conduct tests, drilling and boring there will be disturbance, damage and risks. An oil spillage occurred last year from the Argentine ship that was carrying supplies to a scientific base. The worst damage was caused by the spillage of diesel fuel that it was carrying for generators on the base. If people begin to prospect in the Antarctic, we must supply them with materials. They are normally supplied by sea. Because of the Exxon incident, we know the risks, no matter how careful or regulated the movements are.
We do not have the same intense sunlight as that in the Antarctic, nor do we have the high rise and fall of tides or the same wind patterns. Spills of oil and various wastes, including human waste, do not biodegrade to the same
Column 235extent as they do in the northern hemisphere. They can be left there for years without changing. If we looked round the Antarctic hard enough, we could probably dig up tins of corned beef that were taken there by Captain Scott's expedition. They have not been broken down or degraded at all. They will lie there, almost for ever. The Antarctic is a terribly fragile ecosystem. We do not fully understand the importance of the Antarctic to the well-being of the planet. For example, we do not understand how important it is to weather patterns or how it influences the rest of the hemisphere. We do not fully understand the movement of krill and plankton in Antarctic waters and their roles in the food chain throughout the southern or northern hemispheres. However, we know how important the Antarctic is to various species of birds and marine mammals, many of which are unique to the area.
To exploit the Antarctic we require sea ports that are ice-free for part of the year and some land on which to drill and work. Those very areas have most wildlife, such as penguin rookeries, sea bird colonies and seal breeding areas. We want to protect those areas. I accept that there has been a genuine attempt to build in the best possible safeguards but, with the best will in the world, there will inevitably be accidents, pollution and environmental damage. There is no way that we can legislate for that.
Mr. Wood : I sympathise with a number of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, but would it not be better to agree a convention and have legislation to back it up and then to proceed to further controls, rather than trying to achieve further controls while refusing to sign the convention?
Mr. Morley : I do not agree. Even if we agreed a convention, how would we impose the safeguards once firms started to go to the Antarctic to prospect? Firms will not go there and commit their money for nothing. It will be the thin end of the wedge--the beginning of the rape of Antarctica. Firms will go there not for the good of the environment but to get something out of it. If we are that desperate to find minerals to exploit, we are scraping the barrel. It would be better for the Government to encourage the multinationals to start looking for alternative means of energy replacement. Instead of putting their money into non-renewable sources, they should put it into research and development of renewable sources. That is the way forward, not opening up the Antarctic for exploitation.
It appears that we have reached a deadlock. We have talked about the difficulties in negotiating arrangements for a world park. That being so, what difficulties would there be in agreeing mineral exploitation in the British sector? The Government will have to negotiate with Argentina and Chile. That is hardly the basis for easy or successful negotiations to limit mineral exploitation. Surely it would be better to negotiate for a world park, and perhaps to hand the whole thing over to the United Nations and negotiate a convention to deal with all the conflicting demands. I hope that the Government will take a lead in arguing for the protection of Antarctica and a world park.
Column 2369.10 pm
I support the amendment. [Interruption.] I shall not rise to that piece of muddy old bait.
When history starts to examine the growth of concern about the environment in the 1970s and 1980s, people will surely ask, "Was it right and was it necessary to consider every piece of land and every corner of the earth as a place that could be exploited for minerals?" Perhaps people will say that this was the turning point, at which society as a whole began to realise that it could not go on exploiting every place on earth for oil, gas, coal, diamonds and uranium. Ultimately the process is self-defeating because of the damage that it causes to the environment. We are already beginning to realise that about the rain forests, and I hope that, as a matter of urgency, we shall realise it about Antarctica.
The Antarctic treaty represented a step forward because it meant a halt to the developments that might have taken place at the time. It was introduced because people recognised the difficulty of controlling any development in Antarctica. The tiny number of people in Antarctica already give rise to a serious pollution problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) pointed out, there are two sorts of climates that are not conducive to biodegradability. They are extreme desert conditions and extreme cold. Virtually intact mummified bodies have been found in the Sahara and the deserts of northern Chile after 1,000 or 2,000 years because the climate has been so stable. The problem in Antarctica is that human and other waste does not biodegrade as it does in more temperate climates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said, during his expedition in 1957 Sir Vivian Fuchs reached Scott's various bases and opened and ate some tins of corned beef that had been exported in 1912. I do not know whether he suffered from salmonella or botulism, but I know that he found the food perfectly preserved.
There is considerable waste from the scientific bases. There is human waste, food waste and spilt diesel fuel, which cause enormous damage. We must recognise that any exploitation, whether in the form of survey work or exploration for possible mineral deposits, will create a problem. Only 2 per cent. of the land mass of the Antarctic is ice-free and that is the crucial area for breeding grounds of many birds and various migratory species, yet that is the very place where companies will seek to put their bases.
If the Bill goes through and if exploration licences are granted, there will be a serious environmental problem, which we must examine. I will give a simple example which I am sure that others have used. An oil spill took place in the Alaskan oilfield which caused the most enormous damage, not only because of delays in cleaning it up, but because of its remoteness, the extreme temperatures and the difficulties of access to that region. If an oil spill took place in the Antarctic, especially in the water as the ice cap was expanding, the oil could flow under the ice and quickly cover thousands of square miles. The oil might never go
Column 237away. Those who ask why it matters, as it would affect only a few fish here and there, should realise that whenever one species is destroyed, we are destroying part of the sustainable life of the earth. We should think more seriously about the Antarctic and not see it merely as a potential goldmine for various oil companies. The Minister said that he wanted to preserve the Antarctic, that he did not want it to suffer environmental damage and that he was keen on environmental protection generally. However, he then said that that was why the exploitation of minerals in the Antarctic would be controlled by restricting the licences granted to oil companies. Surely to god, if a number of nations can get together, sign the Antarctic treaty and agree on various measures, they must also agree that any exploitation is dangerous and likely to cause pollution. Surely they should support the welcome change in the Australian Government's position to support for the idea of a world park. I hope that New Zealand and other countries will also support the Australian Government's idea. Why cannot we say that we recognise that the Antarctic is an important wilderness and that we support the idea of a world park? The idea that to control the exploitation there is a pragmatic protection of the world park is unconvincing. Pressure comes from the oil companies and the exploiters of mineral resources around the world, who are trying to get their hands on the Antarctic.
I hope that the House will support the Opposition amendment. If the Bill as drafted is given a Second Reading, we shall continue the arguments in Committee and I hope that I shall be a member of that Committee so that I shall be able to continue those arguments. We will continue to argue for the preservation of the Antarctic as a world park. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe that, at a later stage, the Antarctic could be handed over to an international agency, such as the United Nations, so that it does not become the property of a nation state, which could hand parts of it over to companies such as Exxon and BP, or any other oil or mining company. Mining companies and exploitation companies do not go to the Antarctic to preserve the environment. They may be environmentally conscious, but I always remember the amount that the Central Electricity Generating Board spent on publicity to show that it was preserving bees alongside a nuclear power station. I am grateful to it for defending the habitat of those bees, but appalled by the nuclear power station and the pollution that comes from it.
We must say that we do not support exploitation in the Antarctic. The Minister says that only exploration would be involved and that that is not necessarily exploitation, but why on earth would companies seek to find out how much coal, oil and minerals were there if they did not intend to mount an exploitation of those resources at a later stage?
Those who opposed the railway prospectors in the last century in north America and in this country because their
Column 238proposals would cross their land did so because they knew that, once a route had been worked out, somebody would try to build that line. That is why people such as myself oppose road building plans. We know that as soon as the plans are drawn up, those roads will inevitably be built. Exactly the same process is involved now in relation to the Antarctic. If assessments are made of the mineral wealth there, and if minerals are discovered, the pressure will be on to exploit that mineral wealth.
It is time that we started looking at this a little differently. We should recognise the value to us of the information that we have gained from the Antarctic, such as the information about the problems with the ozone layer that were discovered by the British Antarctic Survey team. We should also recognise that we cannot continue to exploit the world's natural resources at the rate that we are at the moment. We must recognise the principle of sustainable development. We need to devote resources to recycling and to renewable sources of energy. Resources must be devoted to sustaining life and sustaining development instead of having this mad grab to exploit what is one of the last great wilderness areas of the world because if we exploit that area in the way in which this proposal will inevitably lead to there will be a disaster.
An awful lot of people all around the world are watching what is going on, not in the debates in this House, but in debates taking place about the Antarctic as a whole. People are genuinely concerned. They recognise that the rate at which we are exploiting the resources of this planet is unsustainable and that in the end it will cause disasters of various sorts. People recognise that every time that we destroy a plant or animal species, we are destroying some sustainability in our own life system.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) pointed out, temperate and tropical zones can recover from ecological disasters to some extent, but the environment cannot recover in Arctic or Antarctic conditions. We are in danger of causing irreversible disasters in the Antarctic if we allow oil exploitation to go ahead.
I hope that the House will turn its attention to this problem tonight and that it will support the Opposition amendment. I hope that we will succeed in saying that we, too, support the principle of a world park in the Antarctic and that we shall do everything that we can to persuade other countries to do the same. I hope that for once we will put the needs of our environment before the profit motives of large numbers of mineral companies all around the world.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) spoke with sincerity and passion, but I hope that he will recognise that Opposition Members do not have a monopoly of concern about the environment or conservation. I hope that the entire House will agree that we are agreed on the end--on what we want the Antarctic to remain--and that we are divided only about the means.
It is not good enough to make grand unilateral gestures while ignoring the progress that has been based on quiet patient negotiations. I remind the hon. Member for Islington, North that those negotiations succeeded in producing the Antarctic treaty. However, no hon. Member has mentioned what it achieves in any detail. Article 1 of
Column 239the treaty dedicated the Antarctic to peaceful purposes only. Articles 1 and 5 demilitarised and denuclearised Antarctica. In articles 2 and 3 the signatories agreed not to press their conflicting views about territorial sovereignty in Antarctica and opened the way for freedom of scientific co-operation and research in Antarctica on a long-term basis. Article 9 provided that the essentially scientific and peaceful principles and objectives of the treaty were to be pursued at regular meetings.
The treaty was the result of years of patient negotiation. If we were to reject the Bill tonight and accepted the reasoned amendment tabled by the Opposition, we would be placing in jeopardy the similar efforts that have been made to regulate mineral exploitation in Antarctica, and that would be a potential disaster for the environment.
Mr. Corbyn : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although a step forward was made in the Antarctic treaty in terms of denuclearising Antarctica and making it a zone of peace, we are now saying, "Let us take another step and have no exploitation at all"? I and many of my hon. Friends believe that, if the Bill is passed in its current form, it will be a step backwards, because it will open the door to mineral exploitation of the Antarctic.
Mr. Leigh : I shall repeat what I said in my opening remarks. We are agreed on the ends, but were we to take the advice of the hon. Member for Islington, North to pursue unilateral action, I am convinced that, far from achieving his objective, we would put in jeopardy all that we have achieved after seven years of patient negotiations.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that, when opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister said that countries would refrain from mineral exploitation pending the timely entrance into this treaty. Therefore, were we unilaterally to reject that treaty and follow the path advocated by the hon. Member for Islington, North, we might put in jeopardy all that we have achieved, which has been much. For instance, the consulting parties under the Antarctic treaty negotiated the convention on Antarctic marine living resources, adopted in 1980, under which total allowable catches were allocated to countries wishing to fish in Antarctic waters. It is not good enough to say that all that we have achieved under the Antarctic treaty cannot be achieved under this convention.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) and for Stevenage (Mr. Wood) have made clear, it is important to put these matters into perspective and to recognise the enormous barriers that exist to the commercial exploitation of minerals in the Antarctic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow also made clear in his pertinent remarks, it is important to recognise that a tiny percentage of the Antarctic land mass is capable of exploitation. Let us put the matters into perspective and recognise the progress that has been made after years of patient negotiation. Let us recognise, too, the fact that only prospecting will be allowed.
I do not believe that any hon. Member has yet detailed exactly what prospecting would mean if the treaty were to be signed. Prospecting would mean
"activities, including logistic support, aimed at identifying areas of mineral resource potential for possible exploitation and development, including geological, geochemical and geophysical investigations and field observations, the use of remote sensing techniques and collection of surface, seafloor and sub-ice samples. Such activities do not include dredging and excavations, except for the purpose of obtaining
Column 240small-scale samples, or drilling, except shallow drilling into rock and sediment to depths not exceeding 25 metres Exploration' means activities, including logistic support, aimed at identifying and evaluating specific mineral resource occurrences or deposits." Therefore, prospecting would not include activities that could be said to be deleterious to the environment of Antarctica.
My hon. Friends have made it clear time and time again that, whatever we may want to achieve and whatever may be our ambitions for Antarctica, we must be realistic and conscious of what has been achieved and what has not been achieved in history. There are especially the five separate occasions in 1972, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1979 when there was a failure to agree a moratorium on mineral exploitation.
I agree with Opposition Members that the proposal is not ideal, but politics, like international diplomacy, is the art of the possible. It would be a tragedy for Antarctica and for international co-operation, on which the future of Antarctica depends, if we took unilateral action and rejected the Bill.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : This has been an important debate. Essentially the difference of opinion turns on the different judgments made by each side of the House on how the unique ecosystem of the Antarctic can best be preserved. We must decide whether it will be preserved by the Bill and the convention that it implements or by a bolder step, as now seems possible given the new demarche of the Australians and others.
This debate, valuable as it has been, would not have taken place in prime time had it not been for the Opposition and our concern for the environment. The Government appear to question who could criticise a carefully constructed compromise worked out over a number of years--an international convention that cannot be renegotiated. The convention, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) appeared to suggest, is the only show in town. The Government have urged, therefore, that we should support it.
The Government might argue that the issue was given a fair wind in the other place. In April my colleagues in the other place adopted a critical but accepting line to the Bill and it is reasonable to ask, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford has done, what has happened since then. The answer can be succinctly put by the Australian Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, who said :
"We believe in short that what might have seemed impossible--or unobtainable--a few years ago, or maybe even a few months ago, has really now come within reach of the possible."
We are talking about a wholly different set of circumstances. Although in April it could plausibly be argued that the Bill was the only possibility, now we are in a different position.
Mr. Burns : I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Third Reading debate in the other place was on 8 June. Then the Opposition spokesmen did not say they opposed the Bill ; they gave it the same support as they had given it on 20 April.
Column 241about the new set of circumstances. In response Lord Glenarthur said that the Government were rather hesitant about what they called "an unexpected turn of events."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 8 June 1989 ; Vol. 508, c. 945.]
The Government appeared to accept that there was a new set of circumstances. During this debate the least we could have hoped for was that the Government would not simply plough along the same furrow ploughed in April, but would recognise those different circumstances.
In the other place, the Minister said that they would want to discuss this matter in depth, but thus far there is no suggestion that the Government are ready to have such a discussion. They are simply fighting yesterday's battle when the fighting ground has moved on.
There are important reasons why the unease about this matter must be articulated and many of them have been deployed with great competence tonight by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Fundamental to this debate is the recognition that our generation will be called to account by successor generations on the state of the planet that we leave. Can we look future generations in the eye and say proudly that the convention is the best possible means of protecting the vast natural wilderness of the Antarctic from commercial pressures? Other hon. Members have already dealt with its fragile ecosystem, the danger of irreversible damage and the pressures on that 2 per cent. of its land mass that is not covered by ice.
Our amendment refers to the Exxon Valdez disaster. Despite all the technical expertise and competence available to the United States, it still suffered a vast spillage in Alaska causing so much damage. Imagine how much greater the damage would be in Antarctica because of the difficulty caused by the slow rate of biodegradation. If prospecting within the Antarctic were intensified there could be such a spill from a tanker or from a supply ship. If oil drilling were permitted in those stormy seas it would be difficult to avoid leaks. There is always the human factor, as was shown so tragically in the Exxon Valdez incident.
Mr. Summerson : It will not be possible to drill for oil in those seas. Down in the Antarctic the wind gets up to the highest rate in the world, the water freezes as it is blown off the top of the waves and is frozen by the time that it hits an oil rig, temperatures are so low that metal shears if a hammer is dropped and icebergs the size of the Principality of Wales come floating by. There is simply no prospect of oil rigs in the southern ocean.
Mr. Anderson : I hear the hon. Gentleman's arguments, but the same arguments were deployed 20 years ago about the North sea. Technology advances and as we move into a scenario where the price of oil may increase substantially and resources become depleted, there could well be pressures to search for new areas, regardless of all the technical difficulties involved.
Other concerns include the Government's motives. Indeed, they set out their motives with brutal frankness during the debate in another place on 20 April. Lord Glenarthur said :
"It has been our objective throughout the negotiation of the convention to ensure that the UK, as a claimant state in Antarctica, should have the largest possible share of any