Are the proposed new regulations to ban heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic simply not good enough – and could they make things worse?
A row is brewing over new rules designed to ban heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic, with environmental campaigners warning the list of exemptions and waivers will leave the new regulations toothless.
The pollution subcommittee of the International Maritime Organisation proposes phasing out the use and carriage of HFO in Arctic waters by 2024 in some cases, with exemptions for ships with protected fuel tanks and Arctic-flagged vessels extending until July 2029.
However, according to analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), these exemptions and waivers mean 84 per cent of the HFO used by Arctic shipping would still be burned, and 70 per cent of the current HFO fuel volume on board vessels would still be carried. As a result, the IMO’s plans would only dent the release of damaging black carbon emissions, which have been shown to accelerate Arctic melting, by a mere five per cent.
Heavy fuel ban ‘in name only’
The not-for-profit Clean Arctic Alliance says the proposed ban is a “ban in name only”. Its lead advisor Dr Sian Prior said the current slew of waivers and exemptions mean the proposed rules are “simply not good enough”. “It doesn’t provide the Arctic, its ecosystem, wildlife and communities with the protection it so desperately needs,” she said, pointing out the climate crisis means 2029 is too late to take action on the already under-pressure Arctic environment.
'The size of the fleet permitted to burn HFO could actually increase.’
The row comes as Arctic sea ice continues to shrink in the face of rising global temperatures. On 15 September, the National Snow & Ice Data Center released preliminary data showing that Arctic sea ice reached its annual minimum extent of 3.74 million sq km, the second lowest in its 42-year-old satellite record, reinforcing the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent.
Post-ban increase in HFO use?
With reduced ice, comes increased shipping and development in the region. According to the ICCT, HFO use across the entire Arctic fleet was up by 75 per cent in 2019 from 2015. If more ships re-flag to Arctic nations to win waivers from the HFO ban, then the use of the polluting fuel could actually increase through to 2029. Furthermore, as older ships are retired and replaced by newer ships with protected fuel tanks, the size of the fleet permitted to burn HFO could actually increase.
Russia, which has the largest Arctic coastline of any nation and has made major investments in its northern shipping fleet and associated Arctic infrastructure, has pushed for a gradual and phased approach to banning HFO. Research from the ICCT report found that Russian-flagged ships used 287 kt of HFO, representing about two-thirds of the HFO used in the Arctic in 2019.
Based on 2019 data, only seven kt of Russian-flagged ships’ HFO use would be banned if the HFO ban regulation is adopted including exemptions and waivers – more than 97 per cent of the current HFO use by Russian-flagged ships would still be allowed in the Arctic.
Environment v economics debate
Many indigenous groups in the Arctic, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council, support the ban but other organisations, such as Transport Canada, warn the increased cost of low sulphur fuels could hike prices of food and goods for those living in these remote regions. Its spokesperson said it was important to balance environmental needs with the economic realities of northern, Indigenous and Inuit communities.
“This proposed ban has been a long time in arriving and throughout its legislative journey has been continuously under pressure and watered down, just as the number of vessels transiting increases and global warming reduces the extent of ice coverage,” said Bruce McMichael, editor of Frontier Energy, which covers shipping and offshore activities in ice-affected regions. “Added pressure will also come from the mining companies increasingly active in the area, another powerful lobby group.”
Bruce McMichael called on natural resources and shipping companies to take a responsible attitude to operating in the Arctic, warning that an oil spill would be devastating to the environment and local communities but would also see global public opinion force a total HFO ban on regional operators.
The next step in this long running regulatory saga will be the November 2020 meeting of the Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) Sub-Committee of the IMO, although it is not yet clear whether the proposed HFO ban will be among the priority items for discussion.
Amy McLellan is a journalist, author and former editor of Energy Day.