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U.S. and Canada Take a Big Step to Phase Down the Use of Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

December 30, 2016 Work Area: Zero-Carbon Fuels

In a joint statement released on December 20, 2016, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau announced numerous initiatives to protect the Arctic including (1) the designation of the vast majority of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off limits to offshore oil and gas leasing; (2) the launch of new processes to identify sustainable shipping lanes throughout U.S. and Canadian Arctic waters; and (3) the commitment to support and strengthen existing commercial fishing closures in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.  Finally, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau also announced the beginning of a strategy to phase down the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic.

While the offshore oil and gas closures have received the bulk of media attention, we feel the joint commitment related to the use of HFO in the Arctic has not received the coverage it deserves. In particular, the U.S. and Canada announced that the countries were not only working to phase down the use of HFO in the Arctic but would also formally request that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) consider the use of HFO in the Arctic at its next meeting. The IMO is a specialized agency within the United Nations responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships.

The U.S. and Canadian commitment is particularly welcome in the new political climate, and comes just several months after both countries submitted a paper to the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee stating that a “heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could cause long-term damage to the environment.” This announcement not only establishes that the U.S. will support a phase down of HFO in the Arctic, but also that the Obama Administration is committed to taking the required procedural steps to have this important issue formally considered by the IMO.

Future discussions regarding the use of HFO in the Arctic at the next IMO meeting will likely involve both the consideration of the harmful emissions produced by burning HFO as well as the spill risks associated with the use of HFO.

In general, the use of HFO as fuel produces higher emissions of air pollutants such as sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and black carbon (BC), than other marine fuels. Black carbon, which is the strongest light-absorbing component of particulate matter, influences the Arctic climate through two different mechanisms. First, when black carbon is in the air, it directly warms the Arctic atmosphere by absorbing solar radiation that would otherwise have been reflected to space. Second, when black carbon is deposited on light-colored surfaces, such as Arctic snow and ice, it reduces the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. This process results in the retention of heat and ultimately contributes to the accelerated melting of Arctic snow and ice. A recent study found that black carbon emitted from in-Arctic sources has five times the warming effect than black carbon emitted at mid-latitudes.[1]

The use of HFO also presents a substantial spill risk, as it is nearly impossible to clean up in the Arctic environment.  Because HFO is highly viscous it quickly emulsifies on the ocean surface. In addition, in conditions with 10 percent or more ice coverage, conventional booms and skimmers, which are typically used for containing and retrieving oil spills, are ineffective. All of these technical complications are compounded by the natural difficulties created by the Arctic environment, including navigational hazards such as sea ice, lack of infrastructure, heavy storms, high winds, and seasonal periods of 24-hour darkness. HFO spills also have acute and long-term consequences for marine life. The immediate effects of an HFO spill include hypothermia and death in seabirds and marine mammals, while the long-term effects include reduced growth and reproductive rates in various species.

The emission and spill risks associated with HFO use in the Arctic are only expected to increase as Arctic sea ice coverage declines and shipping routes become more accessible to ships burning HFO. Unfortunately, the Arctic is already beginning to see these changes. In fact, the 2016 U.S. Arctic Report Card, which is published by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, recently reported that minimum sea ice extent at the end of the summer of 2016 was the second lowest in satellite history, which started in 1979.  In addition, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development recently presented figures demonstrating that shipments to ports along the Russian Northern Sea Route in 2016 reached a high of 6.9 million tons. This number is the highest it has been since Soviet times, and is only expected to increase as Arctic shipping lanes continue to open.

While the use of HFO in the Arctic is ultimately a global issue, the U.S.-Canada joint statement demonstrates significant leadership and is an important step in protecting the Arctic from the risks of HFO use.  For those of us who have been committed to this issue for some time, both domestically and internationally, this announcement is welcome news.

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