A Burning Question: Governments Agree to an Arctic Heavy Fuel Oil Ban

Arctic Intersection
(Photo by Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard. Public domain), via the United States Geological Survey

As various Arctic sea routes begin to open up for longer periods during the summer months, much anticipation has been created ofthe Arctic Ocean as a faster means of maritime trade between Asia, Europe and North America. Yet, with increased sea traffic comes the greater risk of pollution and damage from accidents and collisions, along with regional and global pressures to ensure future Arctic shipping does not add to the  already considerable environmental stresses in the far north.

Beyond the Arctic Council, there have been several other regional initiatives underway or in preparation in order to address the inevitable uptick bothin Arctic shipping, as well as with other civilian vessels such as cruise liners. For example, the Polar Code, developed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) of the United Nations in 2014 and entering into effect in January 2017, was created in order to better regulate ship traffic and to protect vessels and local ecosystems at both poles.

Further measures, however, have also been advocated to protect the Arctic Ocean in the face of increased shipping, including calls for a prohibition on heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the far northern regions covered by the Polar Code; (a map of the polar regions under the Code’s jurisdiction can be viewed here).

This type of fuel has been cited as comparatively more toxic andrequiring a longer time to break down in ocean waters, but HFO is popular as it is less expensive than alternative fuels. Despite the dangers of spillage, it was estimated that approximately 75% of fuel used by ships in the Arctic fell into the category of heavy fuels. Such a ban in the Arctic, if successful, would match the regulations which went into effect in 2011 by the IMO and which cover the waters southward of 60ºS surrounding Antarctica.

However, unlike near the South Pole, a ban on heavy fuels in the Arctic has proven to be more politically complicated, despite a growing list of governments supportingsuch rules. This week saw a debate on the subject which resulted in an agreement to phase out HFO for ships operating in most of the Arctic Ocean, pending a review of the measure on indigenous communities. This decision was made at the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), held this week in London.

The prospect of such a ban has been debated in the Arctic for several years, and was a main point of a 2009 assessment of maritime shipping trends published by the Arctic Council. Since that time, momentum for such a restriction sporadically moved forward, although there were differences over timetables and coverage. During the middle of last year, a proposal was passed to the IMO to phase out all heavy fuel in the majority of the Arctic by 2021. Among the governments which advocated the proposition were Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. The United States also threw its support behind the ban, despite previous criticisms of multilateral environmental policies by the Trump administration, including the decision in December 2017 to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the US withdrawal from the Paris accords.

New Zealand, another supporter of an Arctic HFO ban, could point to a near miss near the South Pole more than a decade ago as a justification for its stance. NZ had to face a potential ecological disaster in the country’s Ross Dependency region in Antarctica in 2007 when a Japanese whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, caught fire, which resulted in one fatality on board the ship. The vessel was estimated to be carrying about a thousand tonnes of heavy fuel which, had a leak occurred, would have resulted in HFO washing up on nearby Antarctic beaches.

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Panamanian vehicle carrier vessel docked at Auckland Harbour, New Zealand (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

Not all Arctic states were in agreement as to how best to implement a HFO prohibition, and in what timeframe. The government of Canada, while supporting the prohibition, called for a longer transition period and further study, out of concern for the potentiallynegative impact on Arctic communities, a stance which has been criticised by environmental groups. This notably placed Ottawa at odds with Finland, which spearheaded the 2021 due date for a ban.

According to the Clean Arctic Alliance, an environmental NGO which strongly supported the removal of HFOs from the Arctic, other countries, including Australia, Denmark, France, Japan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as the Arab League, were also supportive of a ban after an economic impact assessment was completed. A main question, however, is how the HFO ban will be received by two other major economies, namely Russia, which has by far the largest maritime presence in the Arctic, and China, which also wishes to make greater use of the Arctic for Asia-Europe cargo shipping. Given ongoing concerns about the longstanding effects of a heavy oil spill in the Arctic, it is likely that environmental and other concerned groups will be pushing for the prohibition as soon as is feasible.