The land the world forgot becomes a coveted prize

NOT since the Golden Age of the Empire has Britain staked its claim to such a vast area of land on the world stage. And while the British Empire may be long gone, the Antarctic has emerged as the latest battleground for rival powers competing on several fronts to secure valuable oil-rich territory.

It was once seen as a harsh and barren landscape, an inhospitable wilderness that could yield nothing for mankind and for generations it remained overlooked. But today several countries are vying for a piece of what lies beneath the forgotten continent.

Britain is planning to lay claim to huge tracts of the Antarctic, with the Foreign Office drawing up a submission to the United Nations that 386,000 sq miles of sea bed in the south Atlantic should be declared British.

And the reason for the sudden interest? The area is thought to contain lucrative reserves of oil and natural gas, although under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty the search for these reserves could not begin until 2048.

Opponents of the British move - including Argentina and Greenpeace - say that any submission would breach the spirit of the treaty, which was designed to prevent new claims.

The British first made their mark on Antarctica in 1908 and the British Antarctic Territory now stretches out 666,000 sq miles from the South Pole, although parts of it are disputed by Argentina and Chile. Four other countries, Norway, Australia, France and New Zealand, have substantial interests on the continent.

The move is the latest example of a rush to claim land through the Arctic and Antarctic by states seeking to boost their energy resources. Russia has asserted its right to land beneath the Arctic Ocean and France claimed land around New Caledonia, in the Pacific.

But it seems certain that claims submitted by the British will be challenged by other states as the areas covered are the subject of several long-standing and bitter territorial disputes.

Details of the submission to the UN will be one of five similar claims that Britain has on its radar - in the Bay of Biscay, around Ascension, off the British Antarctic Territory, around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and in the Hatton-Rockall basin. These sites, the Foreign Office insists, meet the "geological conditions required" and Britain is merely "safeguarding for the future".

The 'land grab' is part of a UN treaty that allows coastal countries to claim a continental shelf up to 380 miles off their shores, and the right to search for oil and natural gas there. Britain is one of nine countries that have filed such claims, and more are expected.

The Foreign Office explained: "It's incredibly unlikely that the Antarctic Treaty would ever be abolished but in order to safeguard our interests for the time being, we are submitting a claim."

Environmental campaigners are furious at the proposals and have condemned them at a time when there is growing pressure on governments to reduce carbon footprints.

"In April, the British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, took climate change to the UN Security Council for the first time," said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.

"Six months on, the same Foreign Office is claiming ownership of one of the world's last remaining pristine ecosystems to drill for more fossil fuels.

"The approach reflects the kind of incoherent thinking on climate change that this government has continually demonstrated. If global emissions are to peak and be in decline in the next 100 months - as the scientists warn is necessary - this dash to Antarctica is totally reckless."

The days of British Imperialism may be behind us, but critics fear we are trying to carve out a new empire, with serious political repercussions.

Martin Pratt, director of research at the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, says there is a fundamental disagreement about who owns the land.

"The basis for the claim is that Britain can claim sovereignty under the British Antarctic Territory... but the problem is that the United Kingdom, Chile and Argentina all dispute that territory.

"Legally, Britain is perfectly entitled to [submit this] in the same way that Britain believes it has sovereignty over the Falklands."

Mr Pratt, who has advised countless governments and oil companies on boundary disputes, is convinced that the demand for fossil fuels will force a nation to break the Treaty.

"Unless alternative energy is found, it's inevitable that they'll tap into this area for oil and gas. Look what happened in the Falklands in 1992. But this is an uninhabited continent and there would be heavy diplomacy and sanctions if a war was about to be fought over Antarctica."

Britain's aspiration to expand its sovereignty could trigger disputes with Argentina and Chile, which are likely to make overlapping claims.

The move is widely seen as a direct challenge to the 50-year-old international treaty - aimed at preserving the frozen continent's fragile environment from commercial and military exploitation.

Britain is not alone in its plans. A number of other countries submitting claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf are Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, France, Spain and Norway.

This summer saw a heightening of tensions over Arctic sovereignty and potential oil riches highlighted by record melting of the polar ice cap and a Russian flag-planting mission at the North Pole seabed.

And news of the planned UK claim in Antarctica has raised the spectre of a battle over the southern polar region, with British experts predicting a possible end to the Antarctic Treaty and a looming threat to the southern polar environment.

Martyn Williams, from Friends of the Earth, is not convinced by the Foreign Office's attempt to downplay the prospect of a free-for-all at the South Pole.

"It really doesn't matter whose oil it is. Running around looking for more oil is not compatible with tackling climate change.

"Nor does it matter whether the oil is taken from a white, pristine environment or a dirty, ugly one. The damage to the environment will affect everyone."

Nations scramble to stake a claim to lands the size of Australia

SOME 45 countries with coastlines qualify for potential "extended underwater territory" rights under the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

It has provoked a scramble for underwater land almost as fierce as the one for Africa in the 19th century, when European countries divided up the continent.

As much as 2.7million sq miles - an area similar to the size of Australia - is believed to be at stake. It includes the Arctic, where Russia recently claimed land below the North Pole, new islands off India which emerged from the sea, and Pacific Ocean islands claimed by Australia.

But to claim the new underwater territory, countries must be able to show that it is an extension of their own topography.

All claims must be staked by 2009, which is why there is a rush to gather scientific evidence to support submissions.

Britain is preparing territorial claims on tens of thousands of square miles of the Atlantic Ocean floor around the Falklands and Rockall island in the hope of annexing potentially lucrative oil and gas fields.

The Falklands claim has the most potential for political fall-out, given that Britain and Argentina fought over the islands 25 years ago, and the value of the oil under the sea in the region is understood to be immense. Seismic tests suggest there could be about 60 billion barrels of oil under the ocean floor.

Talks have already begun between Ireland, Iceland and Denmark for the division of rights far out into the north Atlantic. It includes the island of Rockall and the sub-sea Hatton ridge. The claims are not close to final resolution, although Ireland and the UK have agreed a common boundary.

Other countries which have submitted claims to the ocean floors around remote overseas dependencies have run into fierce opposition from neighbouring nations.

France, which registered its claim to thousands of square miles around New Caledonia, in the Pacific, has received protests from Vanuatu warning the claim has "serious implications on Vanuatu's legal and traditional sovereignty". Russia was heavily criticised for making claims beneath the Arctic Ocean.

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