Dirtiest shipping fuel to be banned from Arctic

Keeping heavy fuel oil out of the Arctic will benefit public health and the environment, but shippers warn it will lead to higher prices.

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A cargo ship sails through multi-year ice in the the Northwest Passages. (Timothy Keane / Fednav)

The UN body that regulates shipping agreed Friday to a measure that would ban a highly polluting form of fuel from the Arctic, but shipping executives warn the measure will lead to higher transport costs for communities and industries in the region.

Meeting in London to discuss a range of issues related to maritime pollution, the International Maritime Organisation’s environment committee ordered a subcommittee to work out the details of a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.

Heavy fuel oil is the most common form of shipping fuel, but it has been banned from the Antarctic and limited in parts of the Arctic due to concern that a spill of the highly viscous fuel would have serious environmental impacts.

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The use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic has also been maligned because the soot it releases when burned settles on snow and ice, causing them to melt faster. The soot can also lead to respiratory problems.

The ban, which would apply to use of heavy fuel oil, as well as to transport, is to be developed based on an assessment of its impacts, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a conservation group working to eliminate the fuel’s use.

The work of drawing up the details of a ban will fall on the sub-committee for Pollution Prevention and Response, which is scheduled to gather again in February 2019.

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Conservation groups cheered the decision, saying it was no longer a matter of when, not if, a ban would come into force, and called for work to proceed quickly, so it could be implemented by 2021, the earliest date possible.

“With the Arctic facing growing risks from oil spills and black carbon emissions from ships, the marine sector needs to quickly transition away from polluting fuels like HFO,” said Andrew Dumbrille, a sustainable-shipping specialist for WWF-Canada.

Until now, concern that a ban on heavy fuel oils might cause economic harm to communities that rely on oceangoing transport for shipments of their consumer goods as shippers were forced to convert to cleaner, but more expensive fuels, has been the main reason why the regulations that apply in the Antarctic have not yet been extended to the Arctic.

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Now that a ban is imminent, Dumbrille urged shippers not to pass the higher costs on to customers.

Cost increases are likely to be the case, however. While the industry has expressed its support for clean-air regulations in the Arctic and elsewhere, but representatives of shipping firms underscored in advance of this week’s meeting that any measure that increased their costs would be passed on to their customers, which would likely impact the price of consumer goods.

In addition, a ban on heavy fuel oils specifically in the Arctic, one executive suggested, would put the region’s industries at a disadvantage compared with other regions where the heavy fuel oils would still be permitted.

The IMO also agreed at this week’s meeting on a 50 percent reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions and agreed to take action on limit the amount of marine plastic waste the shipping industry generated.