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  October 25th, 2016 | Written by

Seeking Phase-Out of Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

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  • Heavy fuel oil is still used by most ocean-going commercial ships.
  • Heavy fuel oil is already in Antarctica and around a Norwegian Arctic archipelago.
  • The Arctic Council says spills of heavy fuel oil as the top threat posed by Arctic shipping.

A coalition of environmental NGOs calls for phase-out of use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) for Arctic shipping at an International Maritime Organization meeting in London this week.

Burning heavy fuel oil also emits significant quantities of black carbon, a highly potent short-lived climate pollutant that accelerates the already rapid pace of Arctic climate change. When black carbon falls on light-colored surfaces, such as Arctic snow and ice, it reduces the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. This process can accelerate snow and ice melt, increase the surface area of exposed, dark ocean water, and promote a self-reinforcing cycle of land and sea ice melting and climate warming.

Heavy fuel oil is still used by most ocean-going commercial ships, but, due to its dangers, is already banned in Antarctica and in the waters around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Its use is still unregulated across the Arctic. The eight-nation Arctic Council has identified spills of heavy fuel oil as the top threat posed by Arctic shipping.

With climate change accelerating in the Arctic, and as polar ice recedes, increased Arctic vessel traffic increases the urgency to protect fragile Arctic marine environments and the communities that depend on them. Arctic waters include some of the world’s most productive ocean ecosystems. Many of the world’s largest seabird colonies and most of the world’s populations of several whales, seals, and walruses live here. Some of the world’s highest volume fisheries rely on the incredibly productive Arctic waters. HFO is virtually impossible to clean up and breaks down very slowly, particularly in the cold Arctic.

“The International Maritime Organization must begin the immediate phase-out of heavy fuel oils from Arctic waters,” said Sian Prior, Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance international coalition of NGOs. “We urge the International Maritime Organization to adopt a legally binding instrument to end the use of HFO as marine fuel in Arctic waters by 2020.”

“As sea ice continues to melt away, Arctic shipping routes are becoming increasingly accessible to vessels using HFO as marine fuel,” added Liana James, Shipping Policy Consultant for the US-based Clean Air Task Force. “The United States is in a unique position to demonstrate leadership on this important issue, and to urge the IMO to phase out of the use of HFOs as marine fuel in the Arctic. This action will be a critical step in mitigating the serious environmental risks associated with increased Arctic shipping, including the devastating global consequences of black carbon blanketing snow and ice across the Arctic region.”

In early September, the United States and Canada formally notified the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that a “heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could cause long-term damage to the environment”. This warning follows the 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.” Last month the Danish political party Venstre and the Danish Shipowner’s Association, an Arctic cruise sector leader called for regulating or banning the use of HFO in the Arctic.

The Clean Arctic Alliance (CAA) campaign to phase out the use of HFO in Arctic waters is gaining momentum as the IMO prepares to meet in London. As part of that gathering, the 70th Session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) is meeting from October 24 to 28 in London. Discussions relating to shipping fuels will likely predominate as the body also considers deadlines for setting sulfur limits on fuels.