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It’s Time to Phase Out Heavy Fuel Oil Use for Shipping in the Arctic

August 16, 2016 Work Area: Zero-Carbon Fuels

Today, the Crystal Serenity will make history as the first luxury cruise liner to sail through the remote Northwest Passage.  The ship will depart from Alaska and cruise though the Bering Strait and the Northwest Passage before eventually arriving at its final destination in New York City.

While numerous safety concerns have been raised as the Crystal Serenity has prepared to sail through a largely uncharted region of the earth, the ship’s unprecedented voyage also embodies two significant, but conflicting events that are currently occurring in the Arctic.

First and foremost, the Arctic environment is under stress because the Arctic climate is rapidly warming – since the 1960’s, the Arctic region has warmed more than twice as fast as the global average. This rapid warming is demonstrated by the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the thawing of the permafrost, the reduction of Alaskan and Canadian glaciers and the retreating of Arctic Sea ice.

At the same time, as the ice melts, the waters along the northern coasts of Canada, Russia, Greenland and Alaska are becoming increasingly navigable shipping routes.  This transformation is evident not only by the upcoming voyage of the Crystal Serenity, but also by the increased interest in Arctic shipping by the global commercial shipping industry. In fact, this year will mark the first time that South Korea will use the Northern Sea Route to transport high-tech equipment to Europe. The Chinese cargo-shipping company COSCO has also recently announced its plans to use the Northern Sea Route regularly to transport goods to Europe.

Although shipping goods through the Arctic has the potential to cut 12 to 15 days off the traditional shipping route from Asia to Europe, this shortcut introduces new and significant risks to an ecosystem that is already highly vulnerable to disturbance and pollution.  According to a study carried out on behalf of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum comprised of the eight Arctic nations and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, 96 percent of large ships operating in the Arctic use a highly viscous and toxic fuel called Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO).

HFO use produces harmful and significantly higher emissions of sulphur, nitrogen oxides and black carbon than other fuels.  Black carbon, which is the strongest light-absorbing component of particulate matter, is a critical contributor to human-induced climate warming, especially in the Arctic.  When black carbon falls on light-colored surfaces, such as Arctic snow and ice, the amount of sunlight reflected back into space is reduced, retaining heat, and ultimately contributing to accelerated snow and ice melt.  A number of studies have concluded that black carbon causes about a third of the warming that the Arctic is experiencing, and one recent paper found that a pound of BC emitted from in-Arctic sources warms the Arctic five times more than a pound of BC emitted elsewhere.  With more shipping activity will come more of these harmful in-Arctic BC emissions and greater risks, and ultimately more rapid loss of Arctic snow and ice.

Furthermore, in the event of an oil spill arising from a shipping accident, HFO is virtually impossible to clean up as it quickly emulsifies on the ocean surface. Arctic temperatures, remote locations and extended hours of darkness make the cleanup of an oil spill in the Arctic exponentially more complex than almost anywhere else on the planet. Overall, a major HFO spill in the Arctic would have devastating consequences for the region’s environment as well as for the food security of many indigenous communities.

Phasing out the use of HFO by ships operating in the Arctic would significantly mitigate the serious environmental risks created by increased Arctic shipping.

In March of 2016, the United States and Canada formally acknowledged the hazards posed by the use of HFO in the Arctic, highlighting their intentions to “address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.” As the current chair of the Arctic Council, the United States is poised to carry out its pledge and push for cleaner shipping throughout the region.

While it is possible for Arctic nations to individually phase out the use of HFO in their national waters, a regional phase out on the use of HFO must come from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for regulating international shipping.

Unfortunately, despite a clear commitment in the Obama-Trudeau Joint Statement to address the risks associated with the use of HFO in the Arctic, the United States missed the deadline to formally place the issue on the agenda at the upcoming IMO meeting in October of 2016.

With only one more IMO meeting scheduled before the end of President Obama’s term, this administration is running out of time to take meaningful action to implement the Obama-Trudeau Joint Statement.

It is time to act. While the international community fails to take action to protect the Arctic region, the sea ice continues to melt away and shipping routes are becoming increasingly accessible to vessels carrying dirty fuel.

Although the threats posed by the use of HFO and black carbon emissions in the Arctic region will not be formally addressed on the agenda of the upcoming IMO meeting, there is one final opportunity for the United States to provide written comment on the issue. In particular, the final deadline for submitting short comment papers for the upcoming IMO meeting is September 2, 2016.

Given this quickly approaching deadline, the Obama Administration should submit a short response to a paper that has already been submitted by a coalition of international NGOs, including the Clean Air Task Force, which outlines several tools available to the IMO to effectively mitigate the risks associated with the use of HFO in Arctic waters. This simple step would send an important signal to the international community that the United States intends to fulfill its directive set forth in the Obama-Trudeau Joint Statement and address the threats posed by the use of HFO and black carbon emissions in the Arctic region.

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