Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is the residue and the heaviest elements from making refined oil. It is thick and sticky and breaks down very slowly, particularly in polar conditions. Dr. Sian Prior says it is environmentally destructive and should be banned from use in the Arctic.
The grounding of the Norwegian tanker Champion Ebony off Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea in June 2016 is a stark reminder that the Arctic, adjacent seas and coastal communities need to be safeguarded from the risks of shipping in remote northern waters. The tanker was carrying over 14 million gallons of petroleum fuel to villages in the region. If ruptured, it could have devastated local resources, placing the community on the front line of an oil spill with virtually no capacity to handle a disaster of that magnitude.
HFO spills in the Arctic threaten the four million people living there, particularly the food security of people in Indigenous communities. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) found that the consequences of heavy fuel oils can be more prolonged because of the persistent nature of the product, with the threat to vulnerable marine life such as seabirds as well as economically sensitive resources on occasion lasting longer in the event of a heavy fuel oil spill. In frozen waters, oil could be trapped in ice allowing it to persist even longer, and travel greater distances.
The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) also found that the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment is the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharge. HFO spills are notoriously difficult to clean up and slow to disperse. The Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group (PAME) says this risk can be greatly reduced “if the onboard oil type is of distillate type rather than HFO”.
The evidence against using and transporting HFO continues to grow. A new report to the European Climate Foundation investigates the ecological, economic and social costs of marine/coastal spills of fuel oils. It concludes that the cost per tonne of oil spilled, the cost per tonne of oily waste recovered from sea surface and shoreline, and the cost per kilometre of coastline clean up strongly indicates that polar and sub-polar HFO spills are more expensive in terms of response and impact, than those occurring in environments which are neither remote nor polar/sub-polar. The report also concludes that polar and sub-polar HFO spills, by virtue of their remoteness, the extreme weather and sea state conditions, and the relative lack of data, are very difficult to respond to and may result in high levels of environmental and socio-economic impacts.
HFO also produces harmful and significantly higher emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides and black carbon (BC) than other fuels. Black carbon is transported according to regional meteorological conditions and strongly absorbs visible light. When it falls on light-coloured surfaces, such as Arctic snow and ice, the amount of sunlight reflected back into space is reduced and thus contributes to accelerated snow and ice melt. One study estimated that in 2010 Arctic shipping BC emissions amounted to 1,230 tonnes and would double by 2030 based on business as usual and high growth scenarios. Emissions from HFO use also impact human health: inhaling BC nanoparticles is associated with heart and lung disease and death. Burning HFO also produces other toxins such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals.
The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme’s (AMAP) latest report on BC says “shipping currently accounts for about 5% of black carbon emissions [in the Arctic], but could double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050 under some projections of Arctic vessel traffic.” At the same time, emissions from landbased sources are expected to fall due to stricter controls, increasing the relative importance of addressing emissions from shipping. Switching from HFO fuels to alternatives, such as low-sulphur distillate fuel will not eliminate BC emissions but is expected to reduce BC emission levels by about 30% and possibly up to 80%.
More than a decade ago, the use of HFO in the Antarctic was prohibited due to conditions such as icebergs, sea ice and uncharted waters, and the high potential of environmental impacts associated with a spill. The resolution prohibits the use or carriage as fuel (or cargo) of HFO in the Antarctic area. The new measure took effect in August 2011, however an unforeseen loophole came to light in April 2013, when a Chineseflagged vessel fishing for krill in the Southern Ocean, caught fire and sank off the Antarctic coast. It had been carrying HFO as ballast! An amendment was made and since March 2016, the presence of heavy fuel oil (HFO) on ships operating in the Antarctic or Southern Ocean has been prohibited.
Surely a similar approach should be adopted for the Arctic, where not only is there a risk of spills but the threat of emissions to air, and in particular the deposition of black carbon, is also a major concern.
During the development of the Polar Code, which takes effect January 2017, the Arctic and Antarctic protection measures for discharges of ships’ wastes (oil, sewage, garbage, etc) were aligned. The Code however, failed to include mandatory requirements to address HFO in Arctic waters, although it recommends that Arctic shipping applies the same measures with respect to HFO as Antarctic shipping. Support for a ban on HFO in the Arctic was felt to be premature. The risks and threat to polar ecosystems and wildlife is similar but the nature of shipping in the two polar regions is very different. In Antarctica, shipping is largely comprised of passenger ships, fishing boats and government research vessels, whereas in the Arctic there are also cargo vessels servicing coastal communities in the Arctic and increasingly transiting the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage as summer sea ice recedes.
There has been some progress. Earlier this year the PAME Working Group invited proposals for mitigating the risks associated with the use and carriage of HFO by vessels in the Arctic. In March in the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy and Arctic Leadership, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau committed to “determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping”. In May, the U.S.–Nordic Leaders’ Summit issued a Joint Statement which committed to working towards “the highest global standards, best international practice, and a precautionary approach, when considering new and existing commercial activities in the Arctic…” It could certainly be argued that “best international practice” with respect to HFO, is to ban its use and carriage, as has been done in the Antarctic.
The governments of Norway, Sweden and France have also indicated their desire to ban HFO use in the Arctic. The ultimate goal is an HFO-free Arctic. However, until communities can move away from household dependence on this dirtiest of fuels, a tailored approach may be necessary. This could involve strict routing measures and mandatory reporting, to address the carriage of HFO cargoes, however the first milestone towards an HFO-free Arctic must be a ban on the use and carriage of HFO as a shipping fuel by 2020.