Australia plans to introduce tough new laws that will penalize anyone attempting mining operations in the Antarctic. A bill recently introduced recently would set penalties of up to 16 years in jail to violators.

This comes after comments earlier this year by a senator who suggested Australia should start mining Antarctica after his month-long trip to the icy continent. Senator Joyce felt other countries would beat them to it if Australia did not start exploiting the mineral wealth of Antarctica soon. It is not thought that any countries are investigating mining in Antarctica at this time.

Australia federal legislation doesn’t seem to be anything other than a symbolic gesture, since the 1991 Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty bans any activity relating to mineral resources. There are currently 28 signatories, including Australia, and 17 acceding states to the Antarctic Treaty. The original Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 established “…a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” did not discuss the mining activity for fear of jeopardizing the treaty. The Madrid Protocol, however, will be up for review in 2041.

There are known to be mineral resources on Antarctica, but any mineral extraction would be both extremely expensive and dangerous. Weather, ice and distance from industrialized areas are all factors that would have to be considered. Transportation to Antarctica is never assured, even in the summer months.

Sizeable mineral deposits that are easy to reach on the continent are rare. Coal has been found, but it is primarily of low quality, with high moisture and ash content. Iron ore is widespread in surface rocks and has been traced deep under the ice. However, it is only about 35% iron, not economical to mine even where facilities do exist. Oil extraction from Antarctica has been priced at around 100 USD per barrel, so even if it was found, removing it would be uneconomical.

Moving ice streams and glaciers cover much of Antarctica. However, the idea of moving ice to find ore is not new. Barrick won approval from the Chilean government earlier this year to proceed with its Pascua Lama project. This planned mine could produce 18 million ounces of gold, but a glacier would have to be displaced to get at it.

My question is that if an ore deposit of immense value was found on Antarctica, would nations change their tune? Diamonds hold immense wealth. Note the entire continent is covered with ice. Some countries, like the UK and the United States at one point did not want to ban mineral exploration outright at one time in the recent past. Global warming could make mineral extraction more attractive in the future.

The Arctic is being mined despite extreme conditions (though not as extreme as the Antarctic). Diamond mines in Canada’s north are serviced by ice roads in the winter. Technologies to mine in cold weather have emerged and continue to evolve.

Maybe Australian politicians are thinking of this time in the future when Antarctic resources might be in demand. Only when the Madrid protocol is reviewed in 35 years will we know whether Australia’s environmental bill was incredible foresight or simple redundancy.