Concerns raised over why $503 million upgrade of Antarctica's Scott Base has been delayed just one week before the election

By Adam Burns for RNZ

A polar expert is calling for transparency over why the planned half-a-billion-dollar redevelopment of New Zealand's Scott Base has stalled at the contract stage.

The $503 million upgrade of the country's 66-year-old research station in Antarctica is facing delays following a breakdown in negotiations between the government and its main building contractor.

Antarctica New Zealand, the government's institute, has confirmed it has been unable to reach an agreement on "commercial terms" with Leighs Construction. However, factors about how and why talks have fallen over remain unclear.

Scott Base was constructed for New Zealand's participation in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition and was officially opened in 1957.

A planned redevelopment of the site was officially given the green light in 2021, with $344m set aside in the Budget. This is despite initial projections in the preceding years estimated at between $120m and $150m.

The budget has now ballooned to more than $500m.

The new base is expected to consist of three interconnected buildings that can accommodate up to 100 people, including an accommodation, dining and welfare building, a science and management building, and an engineering and storage building.

The new base was to be built at Timaru's port and then separated into eight modules before being shipped to Antarctica.

Antarctica New Zealand issued a statement on Tuesday saying it was now considering a range of options, utilising a team of external and internal experts, on how to progress the project.

The work is expected to take 10 weeks and will not affect the impending season's research programme, beginning this month.

"Some of the work already under way at Scott Base will continue in preparation for a recommended option. This includes the upgrade to the Ross Island Wind Energy system.

"It is imperative that Antarctic and Southern Ocean science continues to investigate how the continent and its ecosystems will be impacted by climate change, and how those changes will influence the rest of the planet."

Antarctica NZ chief executive Sarah Williamson declined an interview with RNZ.

Meanwhile, Leighs chief executive Gary Walker said there was nothing more the firm wanted to add to what Antarctica NZ had said.

"It reflects the current status of the Scott Base redevelopment," he said.

The new Scott Base design presented in 2021.
The new Scott Base design presented in 2021. Photo credit: Antarctica New Zealand

Call for govt to give an explanation

University of Canterbury Antarctic governance specialist Dr Alan Hemmings described the situation as "peculiar".

"It's been a decade-long project and then suddenly a week before the general election we learn that there is a hiatus and Antarctica New Zealand are unable to sign off on a contract with the principal constructor," he said.

"But nobody will actually say why, as if the taxpayers are not really entitled to know what is really going on."

He said after several project cost estimates in recent years, it would be easy to speculate that money was a factor in the current situation.

"This is a very expensive station rebuild by international standards.

"This is a gold-plated project and it seems profligate already."

Hemmings said the onus was on either Antarctica New Zealand or Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta to explain the situation.

"The irony is all of our political parties are arguing about what priority expenditure should be and the affordability, or not, of various projects.

"I think it is very odd that there is no clarity about what precisely is going on here."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also would not comment, referring the matter to Antarctica New Zealand.