The push to phase out heavy fuel oil in the Arctic continues

An HFO ban was on the agenda when the IMO met in London last week.

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Lisa Koperqualuk of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, on the right, stands with the International Maritime Organization’s secretary-general, Kitack Lim, center, and Verner Wilson III of Friends of the Earth U.S. at the IMO headquarters in London Feb. 19. Koperqualuk told delegates that a plan is needed to phase out the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, but “this must be done without putting undue cost or burden on our communities.” (Courtesy of the Clean Arctic Alliance via Nunatsiaq News)

A renewed call went out last week to phase out the use of heavy fuel oil by ships in the Arctic from the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution.

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said that reducing the risks linked to use of the fuel, commonly known as HFO, in the Arctic is “imperative” as the organization’s High Level Conference on Climate Change and Oceans Preservation in Brussels before the IMO meeting got underway in London on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

“At this session, you will start work on the development of measures to reduce the risks of use and carriage of heavy fuel oil as fuel by ships in Arctic waters,” he said.

“With future vessel traffic in Arctic waters projected to rise, the associated risk of an accidental oil spill into Arctic waters may also increase. It is therefore imperative that the organization takes robust action to reduce the risks to the Arctic marine environment associated with the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil as fuel by ships.”

The IMO is working toward a ban that could be adopted by 2021, and phased in by 2023.

Also at the IMO meeting was Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada Vice-President Lisa Koperqualuk, who delivered a presentation, pointing out that Inuit want to see a ban on the use of HFOs in Arctic waters, which has been supported by the ICC, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Greenland government.

But she said Inuit shouldn’t bear the expense and suggested policies need to be put in place in the short term to allow a transition away from dirty fuels such as HFOs.

“This must be done without putting undue cost or burden on our communities,” she said.

A “fuel switching transition fund” is one potential approach suggested by Koperqualuk.

During their meeting, delegates from the IMO member states worked on how to assess the impact of an HFO ban on Arctic ecosystems, Indigenous local communities and economies. They started the work needed to define what types of fuel will be banned and how they will be banned. They will meet again early in 2020.

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

HFO is already banned throughout Antarctica, as well as in the national park waters around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

“There is still much work to be done before the Arctic ecosystem and Indigenous local communities are afforded the same level of protection as Antarctic waters from the risks of heavy fuel oil,” said Sian Prior, the lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organizations calling for a ban on the use and carriage of HFO as fuel in the Arctic.

Canada, along with Russia, remains one of the few countries that haven’t taken a position on the ban.

This wasn’t always the case. In late 2016, Canada stated it supported a “phase down” on HFO in its Arctic waters.

“Since then, Canada’s position on a HFO ban has changed — it no longer actively supports the ban — a stark contrast to many progressive countries — such as Nordic nations — who vocally support the ban,” said the Clean Arctic Alliance.

Meanwhile Canada has called for assessments into the impacts of an HFO ban on Arctic Indigenous communities.

To that end, the World Wildlife Fund commissioned a study to look at the benefits and economic impacts if HFO were to be phased out in the Canadian Arctic. The report was submitted to the IMO for discussion.

Its review of historical HFO cost data and historical food prices in Nunavut did not find a correlation between fuel costs and food prices.

“In fact, while HFO prices fell by nearly 65 per cent from 2014 to 2017, the average cost of select shelf-stable food items likely transported by vessel to communities increased by about 15 per cent,” the report said.

If an HFO ban resulted in an increased cost of goods to Canadian Arctic communities, the WWF said policy options should be explored “to mitigate these short-term impacts in order to realize long-term benefits of removing HFO from Arctic waters.”

Another recent report by a think tank in the Netherlands, CE Delft, which looked at the cost and benefits of banning HFO in Arctic waters, determined that there would be a 0.2 per cent increase in household expenditures due to an HFO ban on non-perishable items.

At this past week’s meeting the IMO also started to consider the impact on the Arctic of ship emissions — a climate-warming source not included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Much of the soot generated from exhaust from slow-burning HFO and other sources has a powerful impact in the Arctic, where its black particles, which soak up and magnify heat, are believed to be responsible for at least 30 percent 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.