As the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC 71) opens today in London, the Clean Arctic Alliance, of which Seas At Risk is member, called on IMO member states to support a Canadian proposal to mitigate the risks posed by the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters (1).

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Canada, backed by Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and the US, has submitted a proposal to MEPC, calling for work to begin on mitigating the risks of use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) as fuel by ships in the Arctic (2).

“With climate change already having enormous impacts on the Arctic region, the Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on IMO members states to support Canada’s proposal, and commence work immediately to reduce the risks posed by the use of heavy fuel oil by shipping in Arctic waters”,   said Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of international non-governmental organisations work for an Arctic phase-out of HFO. “IMO members must also commit to complying with any subsequent measures taken to reduce risks from HFO, including a ban on its use in the Arctic”.

Heavy fuel oil is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships throughout our seas and oceans. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO; over half by vessels flagged to non-Arctic states – countries that have little if any connection to the Arctic.

But as sea ice melts and opens up Arctic waters further, even larger non-Arctic state flagged vessels fuelled by HFO are likely to divert to Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times. Combined with an increase in Arctic state flagged vessels targeting previously non-accessible resources, this will greatly increase the risks of a HFO spill.

Already banned in Antarctic waters, if HFO is spilled in the colder waters of the Arctic, it breaks down slowly, with long-term devastating effects on both livelihoods and ecosystems.  HFO is also a higher source of harmful emissions of air pollutants, such as sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, including black carbon, than alternative fuels such as distillate and liquid natural gas (LNG). When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is five times more than when emitted at lower latitudes, such as in the tropics.

A number of shipping organisations, including expedition tour operator Hurtigruten and the Danish Shipowner’s Association (Danske Rederier) have already called for a ban on heavy fuel oil from the Arctic. On June 29, ahead of MEPC71, IMO the Norwegian Shipowners Association also announced that it also supports a ban on HFO use in the Arctic.  

“New IMO measures, including a cap on the sulphur content of ships’ fuel, mean that shipowners are currently considering technologies to allow the ships to continue operating on HFO beyond 2020, it’s vital that the IMO’s work to agree measures on HFO risk mitigation in the Arctic be carried out immediately, so that the highest standards for shipping can be adopted and implemented in this especially vulnerable region”, concluded Prior. “It would be ridiculous to delay action until Arctic shipping operators have installed technology in the form of scrubbers, which will allow the continued use of HFO beyond 2020, only to then decide to ban HFO because of the spill risk.” (3)




  1. MEPC 71 takes place at the International Maritime Organization, London, From July 3-7, 2017.
  2. The Canadian proposal, MEPC 71/14/4 Measures to reduce risks of use and carriage of heavy fuel oil as fuel by ships in Arctic waters, will be discussed during MEPC.  Provided there is consensus the proposal will be accepted and added to the work programme of MEPC which lists “outputs”
  3. It was agreed at MEPC 70 in October 2016, to maintain the 2020 deadline for reducing the cap on the sulphur content of fuel oil to 0.5%. The Clean Arctic Alliance warns that the technology to achieve the maximum permitted sulphur content in emissions will result in scrubbers being installed, would mean that HFO can still be used. Once ship owners have installed scrubbers, they are unlikely to be supportive of a ban on HFO as scrubbers won’t be required when using low sulphur distillate fuels.  It is not known what measures will be agreed to reduce emissions of black carbon; but it is important that the measures agreed to address one problem don’t conflict with the resolution of another. A ban of HFO will solve all these problems – by reducing sulphur content andreducing black carbon and reducing the impact of an oil spill.

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