What do soybeans have to do with Arctic pollution? Consider the 2004 wreck of the Selendang Ayu, a Malaysian-registered cargo vessel that broke in half after running aground in the Aleutian Islands, spilling its cargo of soybeans, as well as the contents of its fuel tanks: a common type of ship fuel known as heavy fuel oil.
Because the Aleutian Islands are considered sub-Arctic, they are not subject to proposals to be taken up next week by the IMO, the UN agency dealing with maritime issues, that would seek to limit the use and transport of heavy fuel oil in the in the Arctic. Nevertheless, the scenario is often held up as an example what awaits the region.
In the same way that much of the projected shipping growth in the Arctic is through-traffic, the Selendang Ayu and the soybeans it was carrying was en route from Seattle to Xiamen, China.
There are several problems associated with heavy fuel oil. First, it is a health hazard for humans: When burned, it releases soot, known as black carbon, that can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer and birth defects if inhaled.
In the environment, black carbon amplifies the effects of global warming by coating snow and ice with an energy-absorbing layer that speeds melting.
An added concern is the damage that heavy fuel oil would cause in the event of a spill, either from a ship’s own tanks, as in the case of the Selendang Ayu, or when transported as cargo.
Because heavy fuel oil is toxic and has a tar-like consistency, a spill is challenging to clean up even under the most ideal circumstances. In the Arctic, advocates of a ban suggest, cleanup would be impossible. Despite the modest amount of oil spilled by the Selendang Ayu, the effects were the worst the state of Alaska had seen since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which released 100 times more oil.
Given its potential to damage polar environments, heavy fuel oil was phased out in the Antarctic in 2011, as well as around Svalbard. A similar ban was considered for inclusion in the Polar Code, a set of IMO regulations for Arctic and Antarctic navigation. However, concern about the economic impact a ban would have on Arctic communities, which rely on sealifts to deliver most of the outside goods they use, resulted in the version that took effect in 2017 containing only an anodyne recommendation that ships travelling in the region not use heavy fuels.
Next week’s IMO meeting will consider three separate proposals to address the risk of using and transporting heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters. The proposals, say those familiar with the IMO system, are likely to move forward.
The IMO body that would be asked to study the proposals has already called for “urgent” action to implement global limits on sulfur emissions from ships. This is the same type of air pollution created by heavy fuel oils and suggests that it will take a similar line on heavy fuel oils in the Arctic.
If a ban goes through without a hitch, the earliest it could come into effect would be 2021. At least one of the proposals, however, will seek to slow down the process by asking for a study of alternatives to a ban. These could include measures such as establishing specific routes for ships carrying heavy fuel oils, or limiting only its use as a fuel, but still allowing it be transported as cargo.
There’s no outright resistance to a ban. However, Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a conservation group, sees the alternative proposals as a sign that some countries would like to delay one for as long as possible.
“There are some Arctic countries that don’t support it,” she says. “They aren’t coming out and opposing it actively, but they aren’t fully behind it, which gives some of the other big flag countries that don’t stand to gain anything from a ban someone to get behind, and then you wind up with a bipolar discussion that just isn’t conducive to progress.”
Part of the problem with gathering support for a ban on heavy fuel oil is that is cheap and it is widely used. Alternatives, argue shipping firms, would pose a considerable extra expense. There is a growing movement in the shipping industry towards a ban, but, given the extra costs associated with cleaner fuels, shippers want everyone to agree to it first.
If a ban that only covered the use heavy fuel oil in the Arctic gets adopted, it will mean that ships that travel through the region would still be able to transport HFO, either as cargo, or in their fuel tanks for use once the sail out of the region.
Even though conservation groups would welcome the reduced emissions of this type of ban, they say it does little to eliminate the risk of a spill. Worse, they fret that once a partial ban is in place, efforts to ban heavy fuel oil entirely might peter out.
Firms that have significant operations in the region can see the point of banning the use of heavy fuel oil, but a ban on carrying it, they say, needs to apply worldwide, or not at all.
“When others are able to burn heavy fuel oil elsewhere, we too want to be able to do the same,” says Verner Hammeken, the managing director of Royal Arctic Line, Greenland’s nationally controlled shipper.
The company has five ships under construction that will run on marine gasoil, which is among the cleanest forms of fuel, while in the Arctic. But when the ships leave the Arctic, Hammeken wants them to be able to run on the same kind of fuel that other ships do.
Not being able to carry heavy fuel oil in their tanks while in the Arctic, would have an “asymmetric” impact on Greenland, he says.
Such reactions, according to Prior, are typical.
“Shippers recognize the need,” she says, “but no one wants to go first.”