In visit to shipping regulator, Arctic indigenous groups call for end to heavy fuel oil in the region

By Nunatsiaq News - October 26, 2016

Keep the Arctic cold and clean by cutting out heavy shipping fuels: that’s the message from a coalition of environmental advocacy groups and indigenous speakers who want the International Marine Organization to keep heavy fuel oil out of the Arctic.

This oil, a toxic, tar-like sludge, called the “king of marine fuels,” is used by almost half the ships operating in the Arctic.

But it has a down side—the oil burns slowly, and it’s dirty, throwing heat-causing, lung-irritating black particles over the Arctic. And if it is ever spilled in cold waters, heavy fuel oil would be impossible to clean up, critics say.

“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, in an Oct. 20 news release.

[OPINION: Why we need to get the world’s dirtiest fuel out of Arctic waters]

“We urge the International Maritime Organization to adopt a legally binding instrument to end the use of HFO [heavy fuel oil] as marine fuel in Arctic waters by 2020.”

The IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee, meeting this week in London, will discuss the implementation date, 2020 or 2025, for a global 5,000-parts-per-million cap in fuel oil for sulfur, which can damage people’s health.

The committee members will also look at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships—a climate-warming source not included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

To turn their attention to the Arctic, a panel of Arctic indigenous speakers from Russia, the U.S. and Canada, brought to London by the Clean Arctic Alliance, is scheduled to speak at an Oct. 26 IMO event called “Arctic Voice.” They hope to convince the committee to consider heavy fuel oil limits in “other business” discussions later in the week.

Arctic indigenous leaders and environmental advocates met with IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, to urge an end to the use of heavy fuel in the region. (Courtesy International Maritime Organization)
Arctic indigenous leaders and environmental advocates met with IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (Courtesy International Maritime Organization)

Speakers include Eduard Zdor of the Russian Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka, Hans Lennie of the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Committee and the Inuvialuit Game Council, and former Nunavut politician Tagak Curley.

They plan to outline the benefits and threats posed by shipping to the Arctic along with the need to limit oil spill damage risk and soot emissions, by banning heavy oil fuel.

A delegation also met with IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim on Tuesday.

The IMO’s Polar Code on the protection of polar waters, which comes into force in 2017, only says “ships are encouraged not to use or carry heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.”

But much of the soot generated from exhaust from slow-burning heavy ship fuel and other sources has a powerful impact in the Arctic where its black particles, which soak up heat, magnify heat like a black T-shirt on a sunny day and are believed to be responsible for at least 30 per cent of warming in the Arctic.

Research has shown that reducing soot emissions could cool down the Arctic faster and more economically than any other quick fix.

And there’s some urgency.

Polluting emissions from ships in the Arctic could, by 2025, increase by between 150 and 600 per cent if nothing is done to reduce the amount of sulfur in marine fuel and tighten up on dirty emissions from vessels heading into the Arctic.

But in a document filed with the IMO in advance of this week’s meeting, the U.S. and Canada said it’s “complicated” to reduce heavy fuel use in shipping.

“Many aspects must be considered when weighing available mitigation options, including the development, sustainment and economics of communities that would be directly affected by such measures, particularly remote indigenous populations and business interests vital to remote population centres.

“Additionally, the viability of these measures depends inherently on the ability of States to enforce them.

The joint submission did say, “a heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could cause long-term damage to the environment.”

And it mentioned the March 2016 commitments made by President Barack 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 [soot] emissions from Arctic shipping.”

With Mexico, the two leaders also agreed this past June to address greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping, including emissions from ships now in service.

Several northern nations and international shipping associations also support a phase-out of dirty heavy fuel in the Arctic.

Heavy fuel oil use is already banned in Antarctic waters.