Canada pushes to rid Arctic shipping of heavy fuel oil
“We have an opportunity now to end the use of this toxic substance while levels of ship traffic are still relatively low”
Use of controversial heavy fuel oil by ships travelling through Arctic waters could be phased out or at least capped by International marine regulators.
HFO, or bunker oil, has been banned for use in Antarctic waters and is restricted in Norwegian water, because of its significant environmental impact on polar pollution.
Yet the fuel is still used widely by the shipping industry.
“Seventy-five per cent of the volume of ship fuel is heavy fuel oil. A little less than 50 per cent of the ships actually use it, but by volume it’s the highest in the Arctic,” WWF-Canada sustainable shipping specialist Andrew Dumbrille told Nunatsiaq News, July 10.
He attended a week-long meeting at the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) London headquarters, ending July 7, where Canadian delegates made a submission to review and phase out the high polluting fuel.
The reason why HFO fuel volume is so high is because the largest ships use it—resupply ships, vessels servicing mine sites and large passenger vessels. Fishing vessels tend not to use HFO and neither does the Canadian Coast Guard, said Dumbrille.
But the IMO has yet to take a stand on use of HFO in the Arctic. The marine organization’s relatively new Arctic shipping regulations—the Polar Code, which came into force in Canada Jan. 1—contains only a voluntary recommendation to avoid use of HFO.
“No one follows it,” said Dumbrille.
Yet the recent meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee saw steps to address heavy fuel oil use in Arctic waters, thanks to the submission made by Canadian delegates from the Government of Canada and WWF-Canada as well as Indigenous representatives.
The Canadian report cites several reasons for the phase-out of HFO in the Arctic including gaps in spill response capacity for northern communities, difficulties in cleaning up HFO and high levels of soot and carbon emissions from the burned fuel.
“HFO is extremely viscous and breaks down more slowly in the marine environment than other fuels, particularly in colder regions like the Arctic,” reads the submission. “Studies show that while 90 per cent of HFO remains after 20 days in the ocean, marine diesel can take as few as three days to break down.”
Dumbrille said the Canadian submission for HFO reduction garnered support from all Arctic states as well as some non-Arctic states, because of the impacts HFO is suspected to have on northern peoples.
“The linkage between spills and livelihood was really obvious,” he said, “because of the unique and fragile Arctic environment and because communities depend on the ocean for food and livelihood.”
When spilled, the thick fuel mixes with surface seawater to form slurry, said Dumbrille, and is difficult to clean up using standard oil spill response techniques. The slurry is particularly dangerous to animals that use the surface of the water, such as whales and birds.
WWF-Canada is asking that the IMO phase out HFO between now and 2020, allowing industry some time to adapt.
“We have an opportunity now to end the use of this toxic substance,” Dumbrille said in a news release, “while levels of ship traffic are still relatively low.”