Ban the Use of Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

Passenger and cargo ships traveling in Antarctic waters are prohibited from using, or carrying, heavy fuel oil – but not in the Arctic. This inexpensive fuel emits powerful climate forcers and poses a significant threat to the marine environment, particularly in colder waters, writes Laura Strickler.

Written by Laura Strickler Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

This past April, the Cyprus-flagged M/V Marathassa unintentionally leaked at least 2,700 liters of bunker fuel while it was anchored in the calm waters of English Bay off Vancouver, British Columbia. According to an independent review of the spill, communication hiccups delayed a full response from the Canadian Coast Guard and other agencies, and the cleanup took more than two weeks.

Luckily, many of the worst potential impacts from such a spill were averted. That said, the incident highlights an urgent need to ban the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic’s fragile environment.

The Marathassa, a brand new bulk grain ship, was using bunker C fuel, a common fuel used on marine cargo ships around the world. Bunker C is a heavy and viscous fuel that is challenging to clean up. It evaporates slowly and can break off into tar balls that wind up on distant beaches, carried by winds and ocean currents. The cold waters of the Arctic and Antarctic amplifies these properties. Throw in their remote locations and spill cleanup at either pole becomes even more daunting.

In late April, the United States took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council , a regional and intergovernmental policy discussion forum. As chair, the U.S. should lead the Arctic countries in working together at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to ban the use of HFO in the Arctic environment.

The IMO is the United Nations body responsible for regulating international shipping. It already recognizes the particular threat HFO poses to polar environments and has banned both its use and carriage in the Antarctic. The Arctic does not yet enjoy this same protection, despite having similar environmental characteristics, such as icebergs, ice floes and uncharted waters. A ban on HFO use in the Arctic was under discussion at the IMO in 2013, but the Marine Environment Protection Committee deemed it “premature” at the time.

Though physically similar, the Arctic is a world away from the Antarctic politically and economically. For one, there are no permanent residents in the Antarctic. HFO is cheap, and getting goods to the more than four million people living in the Arctic is not. Still, there was support from some countries for such a ban in 2013, and Norway recently prohibited the use of HFO off the coast of the Svalbard archipelago.

Slowing the pace of change in the Arctic is becoming ever more important to mitigating climate change impacts globally. Burning HFO emits black carbon, or soot, into the atmosphere. Black carbon emissions are of particular concern in the Arctic, where the dark particles settle on snow and ice and transform heat-reflecting surfaces into heat-absorbing surfaces, further accelerating the ice melt in an already quickly warming region.

Sea-ice retreat is opening up the once-frozen region to more economic activity, including commercial shipping lanes. With more activity comes more emissions and greater risks.

So far this decade, ship traffic increases in the Arctic have been inconsistent year to year. However, there is already a fair amount of maritime activity in the region, and growth expectations remain high. In October, the Chinese shipping group COSCO announced plans to make regular trans-Arctic voyages , and a recent article in Nature Climate Change suggests that there will be 60 additional days of ice-free water in the region by the middle of the century.

A report from the Arctic Council notes:

“Black carbon emissions from Arctic states have greater impacts because they are closer to the Arctic. Within the Arctic, shipping currently accounts for about five percent of black carbon emissions, but could double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050 under some projections of Arctic vessel traffic.”

An earlier report commissioned by one of the Arctic Council’s working groups addresses the marine side and concludes:

“In light of the particular HFO properties, significant risk reduction will be achieved if the onboard oil type is of distillate type rather than HFO.

However, distillate fuels are much more expensive and less readily available than HFO. The economic incentives are not yet there for industry to switch to cleaner fuels on its own; political will is required to achieve higher environmental standards for shipping in the Arctic.

When the United States took the lead of the Arctic Council in April, it established the impacts of climate change and Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship as two of the pillars of its two-year chairmanship. This past August, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Arctic , and in January the United States will host the first meeting of the Arctic Council’s Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane. The United States is poised to take their Arctic leadership to the next level and push for cleaner shipping in the region.

The Arctic is warming much more quickly than lower latitudes, and the impacts of climate change in the region are felt globally. Banning HFO use in the Arctic won’t halt climate change in its tracks, but the continued use of HFO seriously undercuts climate mitigation and environmental protection efforts in the region and beyond. Adjustment to using cleaner fuel will take time, but taking action on the idea is no longer premature.

Top image: Maritime vessels in the Arctic may operate on heavy fuel oil, such as bunker fuel, that can pollute the environment. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

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