Banning Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

While we are closer to a ban, there is still room for improvement

Last month, a subcommittee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) created draft regulation to ban ships from using or carrying heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic. For four years, Ocean Conservancy has worked tirelessly on the development of this ban to protect the Arctic from the threat of HFO spills. While the drafted ban is a step in the right direction, various loopholes and gaps would leave Arctic waters at risk.

Why ban the use, and carriage for use, of HFO in the Arctic? Heavy fuel oil is crude oil after it is stripped of all its more valuable components. What remains is a dirty, heavy, tar-like sludge that is used by many large seagoing vessels because of its cheap cost. If a spill occurs, heavy fuel oil persists in the environment for far longer than other fuels, and even emulsifies in water, rendering it the most dangerous fuel when spilled in a marine environment. This poses even greater risks in Arctic regions where sea ice and a lack of infrastructure hinder the possibility of recovering spilled oil. In addition, heavy fuel oil emits greater concentrations of black carbon, which contributes to the rapid warming of the Arctic. For this reason, its use, and carriage for use, has already been banned in the Antarctic.

After several days of intense negotiations, a working group drafted a regulation for an HFO ban that, if adopted at future IMO meetings, would take effect in July 2024. While this timeline is longer than we’d hoped for, it’s typical for the IMO to take several years between drafting of regulation, approval and implementation. However, various proposed loopholes in the proposed language are of concern. For example, ships with double hulls or protected fuel tanks can delay implementation of the ban for five years. In addition, Arctic countries may waive the ban for ships flying their flag while operating in their own waters. If approved, these exemptions would allow the vast majority of ships that use HFO in Arctic waters to continue relying on this cheap, dirty fuel until 2029.

Is there anything that can be done to strengthen the ban before it is adopted?

Ocean Conservancy and its partners are calling on IMO member states to improve implementation timelines and remove the current loopholes that allow most ships to continue using HFO in the Arctic until July 2029. We will also encourage ships to voluntarily shift away from these fuels to cleaner fuels. Ocean Conservancy remains committed to improving this HFO ban, and making shipping in the Arctic as safe and environmentally friendly as possible.

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