Stepping into an HFO-free era in the Arctic

On July 1, 2024, an international ban on the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) comes into effect in the Arctic region.

Illustration. Courtesy of IMO on Flickr

The ban, adopted by the United Nations maritime body, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), at the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 76) in June 2021, aims to protect vulnerable Arctic waters from the risk of oil spills.

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With the new ban, it will be illegal for ships to carry HFO as fuel in their tanks in the Arctic.

However, the ban includes a transitional arrangement that gives shipping companies time to adapt while simultaneously protecting the Arctic from oil spills. It allows ships with protected fuel tanks to use HFO until 2029.

As explained, the transitional provision applies to ships built after 2010 that meet the international MARPOL regulations with protected fuel tanks. These ships are designed with an extra protective barrier around their fuel tanks, significantly reducing the risk of oil spills in the event of an accident.

“This ban is a significant step towards protecting the Arctic. By allowing ships with protected fuel tanks to continue using HFO until 2029, we ensure that shipping can adapt to the new rules in a practical and responsible manner while simultaneously protecting the fragile environment in the Arctic,” Nina Porst, Director of Climate, Environment, and Safety at Danish Shipping, commented.

Specifically, the prohibition will cover the use and carriage for use as fuel of oils having a density at 15°C higher than 900 kg/m3 or a kinematic viscosity at 50°C higher than 180 mm2/s. Ships engaged in securing the safety of ships, or in search and rescue operations, and ships dedicated to oil spill preparedness and response would be exempted.

Arctic heavy fuel oil ban has serious loopholes

As the ban comes into force today, the Clean Arctic Alliance has called on IMO member states, particularly Arctic coastal countries, to implement the Arctic HFO ban and enforce it fully with immediate effect – without resorting to loopholes.

The alliance has also called on the IMO to extend the area covered by the ban to include all Arctic waters north of 60°N, and to enact regulations to reduce black carbon emissions from shipping, which would help reverse the impacts of climate warming in the Arctic, through the use of cleaner fuels and diesel particulate filters.

Recent Arctic Council studies of ship activity in the Arctic have shown an increase of 37% between 2013 and 2023 and a 111% increase in total distance traveled over the same period.

In recent days, an Irish vessel, the Arklow Wind, was fined by authorities in Svalbard for carrying heavy fuel oil. In Norwegian waters around the island archipelago of Svalbard the use and carriage of HFO has been banned since 2022, it has been forbidden to carry or use heavy fuel oil in territorial waters around the Arctic archipelago.

Canada has also taken action to address the environmental impacts of marine shipping by implementing a ban on HFO use by vessels in the Arctic. On June 28, 2024, the Minister of Transport, Pablo Rodriguez, announced the Government of Canada is moving forward with a domestic ban on the use and carriage for use as fuel of heavy fuel oils in Arctic waters that will be implemented on July 1, 2024.

The ban will be implemented through an interim order because the government has not yet incorporated it into national legislation.

Canada offers waivers to domestic ships, exempting them until July 1, 2026. The waivers allow 74% of the HFO-fueled fleet to continue operating in the Arctic, where they will continue to pose a threat to communities and wildlife for the next several years, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“Governments and NGOs fought long and hard to achieve the ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic – yet see that it will be half-implemented is quite simply not good enough,” Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, commented.

”IMO Member States, especially Arctic coastal countries, must go farther than the IMO ban by implementing it in ways that truly protect the Arctic from HFO spills and black carbon emissions – and that means refusing to offer loopholes to the shipping industry”.

“In addition, by implementing strong HFO regulations, the IMO can significantly reduce the risk of HFO spills and also see co-benefits – reducing air pollution, and slowing down the impacts of climate warming on the Arctic,” Prior added.

“Combining better fuel choices today with the use of existing technology, ships operating in the Arctic would see black carbon or soot (a component of particulate matter) emissions reductions of more than 90%. As black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only a short period of time, if all shipping in the Arctic used lighter distillate fuels and installed diesel particulate filters – existing technology long used in land transport to reduce diesel fuel emissions – we would see rapid removal of a massive threat to Arctic sea ice – which is crucial for balancing the climate and weather in the Arctic and further afield.”

“Today, July 1st is an incredible opportunity for the shipping industry to demonstrate that it is willing to embrace a cleaner future,” Prior continued.

“Instead of hiding behind the use of exemptions, shipping companies can switch to readily available, relatively cleaner fuels such as diesel or distillate marine fuels (e.g. DMA, DMZ) or to alternative forms of propulsion and install diesel particulate filters.”

“The use of scrubbers must be avoided – they are an excuse to keep using HFO, while transferring air pollution into marine pollution and moving to gas fossil fuels such as LNG simply replaces one potent short-lived but high impact climate pollutant – black carbon – with another – methane. Use of diesel fuel along with the installation of particulate filters or precipitators, as prescribed for other forms of transport, can reduce emissions of black carbon by more than 90 percent quickly and be a solid first step on route to decarbonisation,” Prior concluded.