Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

NGOs sound alarm on heavy fuel oil used in Arctic shipping

Heavy fuel oils are already banned in Antarctic waters — but not in the Arctic.

As Arctic Council delegates convened for a three-day environmental working group meeting in Sweden on Monday, representatives of 15 NGOs released a letter calling on the Council’s eight member states to pursue a ban on heavy fuel oils in the region.

“The risks to the marine environment, the climate, and public health are too great to permit the continued use of [heavy fuel oil] in Arctic shipping,” the letter says.

Cargo shipping in the Arctic region has increased in recent years as firms take advantage of shorter routes that are usually clogged by sea ice. Some of these ships are powered by or are transporting heavy fuel oil, which the letter asserts is a grave environmental threat to the Arctic’s delicate ecosystem.

As opposed to other fuels, such as diesel, heavy fuel oil does not evaporate when spilt. When it mixes with seawater, it actually expands in volume.

“Coupled with its viscosity and tendencies to sink and stick to anything it comes into contact with, cleanup effort becomes insurmountable,” the letter says. “The problem is more acute in Arctic waters because of lower species diversity as well as reduced growth and reproduction rates for its biota. More damage can occur, more quickly and with longer lasting effects than in other climates.”

The letter also details the risks of black carbon — a soot-like particulate that forms as a byproduct of burning heavy fuel oil. Studies have shown that black carbon may be hastening the melting of sea ice, and also contributes to the degradation of air quality.

“When a human being breathes that, it’s essentially breathing soot,” said Conrad Schneider, Advocacy Director for the Clean Air Task Force and one of the letter’s signatories. “It not only affects the lungs, but it can penetrate the deepest reaches of the lungs and enter the bloodstream and cause problems in the cardiovascular system as well.”

Approximately 4 million people live in the Arctic, and many remote communities continue to rely on traditional subsistence to survive.

Austin Ahmasuk of Kawerak, the non-profit arm of the Bering Strait Natives Association, said a spill of heavy fuel oil would have devastating effects on indigenous communities who rely on marine resources to maintain their way of life.

“Of all the spills that could occur, heavy fuel oil is a pretty significant one,” Ahmasuk said. “It’s the most difficult one to clean up. In this part of the world, where there is so little oil spill response capability, you compound that.”

“In terms of local communities, they’re going to bear that brunt if and when there’s an oil spill,” said Sue Libenson, spokesperson for San Francisco-based nonprofit Pacific Environment, which helped produce the letter.

The Arctic Council is made up of representatives of eight member states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States), and organizations that represent the indigenous Aleut, Athabaskan, Gwich’in, Inuit, Saami, as well as indigenous communities in Russia. The United States is currently chair of the council.

In 2011, the European Parliament also called for a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.

The International Maritime Organization, a body of the United Nations, banned heavy fuel oils in the Antarctic in 2010. Ultimately, it is that organization which would ban the fuel in the Arctic.

A spokesperson for IMO said by email: “Proposals to apply the same mandatory requirement in the Arctic have not so far been agreed by all member states, but there is a recommendation in the Polar Code to apply the same regulation on voluntary basis. To have the mandatory requirement in the Arctic, Parties to [the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ship] need to put forward the proposal for discussion.”

“I think the Arctic Council can basically be an advocate at the [International Maritime Organization], pushing for tighter regulation of [heavy fuel oil],” said Andrew Hartsig, Arctic Program Manager at the Ocean Conservancy, who also signed the letter. “If they came together and pushed for it, I think it would be a relatively straight forward effort to get the [International Maritime Organization] on board.”

In November 2015, an oil spill in the North Pacific covered nearly 2.5 miles of Russia’s Sakhalin Island shoreline with oil. The spill “occurred in waters free of ice and in close proximity to a port, yet response was still stymied by severe weather,” the NGO letter says. “If a similar event had taken place in the Bering Strait or comparably remote and under-equipped area, a timely response would likely have been infeasible. And even if it were eventually mounted, a cleanup attempt would have been minimally effective at best.”

In 2011, a record-breaking 33 ships passed through the Northern Sea Route, which stretches along Russia’s northern coast and passes by Alaska via the Bering Strait. By 2013, that number had risen to more than 70, though dropped to 31 in 2014. 2015 data are not yet available. 

“People now see shipping as a problem,” Hartsig said. “When I first started this in 2008, very few people were talking about shipping. But now, partially because of the setback in the oil and gas industry up here, shipping is on the tip of more peoples’ tongues than oil and gas in the Arctic.”

“Yes, there’s been an increase,” Ahmasuk, who lives in Nome, Alaska, said. “However, we are not the Strait of Hormuz. We are not the Panama Canal. We are the Bering Strait. The actual nature of the increase is modest.”

Ahmasuk added: “But it’s dramatically different than it was 15 years ago.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter