Getting Heavy Fuel Oil out of the Arctic – the State of Play
Dr Sian Prior, December 2016
When the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC70) meeting closed in London on Friday, October 28, the Clean Arctic Alliance hailed the progress made by member countries towards a phase out of the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by ships sailing in Arctic waters.
Heavy fuel oil (HFO), a fuel used throughout the shipping industry, is a viscous and tar-like residue of the crude oil refining process that breaks down extremely slowly in cold waters, and is close to impossible to clean up in the event of a spill. HFO is also the source of harmful black carbon which contributes to the warming of the Arctic region.
Arctic waters include some of the world’s most productive ocean ecosystems, providing sustenance to large populations of whales, seals, walruses and seabirds. Some of the world’s highest volume fisheries rely on the incredibly productive Arctic waters. By officially recognising the threats posed to local communities and to Arctic ecosystems by spills and black carbon emissions from heavy fuel oil, the IMO has recognised that further action is critical to safeguarding the environment and wildlife, and human health and food security.
During MEPC 70, three papers addressing the HFO problem were presented, along with one on Arctic food security. In response, several Arctic countries, and in an unusual move, the IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim, stated that they shared the concerns summarised by the papers and on the need for further consideration of the risks of HFO.
This is significant news – it shows that there is both an understanding of the HFO problem, and a moral obligation on IMO members to capitalise on this momentum by bringing forward concrete proposals in time for next July’s MEPC 71 meeting, along with setting a deadline of 2020 for a phase out of HFO from the Arctic.
If the IMO can achieve this level of progress, it would usher in the end of the HFO era, and to put the shipping industry on the path towards transitioning cleaner fuels, as it expands its operations in the Arctic’s fragile and sensitive environment.
During the October MEPC meeting, the IMO also made the crucial decision to cut sulphur content in shipping fuels to 0.5% by 2020. While it is anticipated that this will reduce the volume of HFO used by Arctic shipping it will not, as once thought, eliminate the use of HFO in the Arctic – so a phase out remains the most desirable way forward.
Why a HFO Free Arctic?
In a study undertaken by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) it was concluded that the impact and costs of a spill will be more prolonged because of the persistent nature of HFO and as a consequence the threat to vulnerable marine life such as seabirds as well as economically sensitive resources can also last longer. This is subsequently borne-out by a recent report by Tim Deere-Jones which concluded that because of the remoteness and difficulty of operating in polar and sub-polar waters, HFO spills are more costly to respond to and will have a greater environmental and socio-economic impact.
While HFO powers 44% of the ships currently operating in the Arctic, it accounts for more than 75% of the fuel onboard those ships, according to ICCT figures. Heavy fuel oil is already banned throughout Antarctica because of the risk posed by a spill, and in the national park waters around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, leaving only a strictly regulated corridor for ships to access the islands.The shipping industry has a clear opportunity to begin phasing out HFO, and replacing it with cleaner, more efficient fuels. For example, these include so-called transition fuels, like LNG or lighter distillate fuels which should be used along with particulate filters. LNG produces no black carbon, while using particulate filters with distillate fuels virtually eliminates black carbon.
The Clean Arctic Alliance does not endorse any fossil-based fuels, and believes that the shipping industry must play its part in contributing to the global effort to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Moving away from fossil-fueled shipping is the most direct way to cut the risks of catastrophic oil spills, and to reduce both CO2 and black carbon emissions.
Growing Support for a Ban
During the October MEPC meeting, a panel of Arctic indigenous speakers from Russia, the United States, and Canada addressed the IMO, which is currently not advised by an indigenous delegation when deciding on shipping policy. The Arctic delegation, which included Eduard Zdor of the Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka, Hans Lennie of the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Committee and the Inuvialuit Game Council, and Tagak Curley, considered one of the Fathers of Nunavut, met with Secretary-General Kitack Lim to discuss a wide-range of issues including climate change and the increase in number of ships operating in Arctic waters. During the meeting, the indigenous delegation reportedly called for an end to HFO use in Arctic waters.
Even before MEPC 70, some IMO member countries and parts of the shipping industry were already making movements in the right direction. In September 2016, the United States and Canada formally notified the International Maritime Organization that a “heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could cause long-term damage to the environment”. This follows March 2016 commitments made by U.S. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau to “determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping” . Also in September, the Danish political party Venstre, the Danish Shipowner’s Association, and an Arctic cruise sector leader Hurtigruten called for regulating or banning the use of HFO in the Arctic. Since MEPC 70, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) and Finnish icebreaker firm Arctia have also expressed their support for an Arctic HFO ban.
Update December 21: US & Canada move to “phase down” HFO
In December 2016, Canada and the US announced a joint “phase down” of HFO from their respective Arctic regions (see Clean Arctic Alliance response). In September 2016, both countries had formally notified the International Maritime Organization that a “heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could cause long-term damage to the environment”.
The Clean Arctic Alliance applauds the commitment of President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau to develop a concrete proposal to phase down HFO use in the Arctic. With ship traffic in the Arctic expected to grow dramatically as Arctic sea ice continues to decline, this announcement demonstrates real regional leadership towards protecting the Arctic from future harm.
The US and Canada have also agreed to propose a plan for the next meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 71, July 2017) in order to implement the work necessary for a phase out.
Read the Clean Arctic Alliance response.
The Arctic Commitment
In January 2017, Clean Arctic Alliance member organisations Bellona and the European Climate Foundation will join Arctic ship cruise operator Hurtigruten in Tromsø, Norway, to launch the Arctic Commitment, a joint effort between the shipping industry and environmental NGOs to work together to find solutions to the use of HFO and shape the future direction of shipping policy for the Arctic. The signing will take place during the Say No to HFO: Support for a Sustainable Arctic Future side event at the annual Arctic Frontiers conference.
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Dr Sian Prior, Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance
About the Clean Arctic Alliance
The following not-for-profit organisations form the Clean Arctic Alliance, which is committed to achieving the phase out of HFO as marine fuel in the Arctic:
Bellona, Clean Air Task Force, Danish Ecological Council, Environmental Investigation Agency, European Climate Foundation, Friends of the Earth US, Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment, Seas At Risk, Transport & Environment and WWF.