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IMO and Arctic States Slammed for Endorsing Continued Arctic Pollution

Ocean Conservancy protests “ban” that will continue heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic

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LONDON – The Clean Arctic Alliance today slammed the decision by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to approve a ban ridden with loopholes on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic, saying that it would leave the Arctic, Indigenous communities and wildlife facing the risk of a HFO spill for another decade.

“Instead of an effective and ambitious ban on use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, the IMO has committed Arctic shipping to a course of action that may lead to a devastating spill of the world’s dirtiest fuel,” said Sarah Bobbe, Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program manager. “The IMO’s lackluster decision is beyond belief considering it has already been ten years since the Arctic Council identified an oil spill as the biggest threat from ships, with heavy fuel oil by far the most detrimental, to Arctic waters.”

The ban was approved during a virtual meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 75) this week, despite widespread opposition from Indigenous groups, NGOs and the Catholic Church.

At the IMO’s PPR 7 subcommittee meeting in February 2020, the IMO agreed on the draft before sending it to MEPC. Following PPR7, the Clean Arctic Alliance called the inclusion of loopholes in the form of exemptions and waivers in the draft regulation “outrageous” as they mean a HFO ban would not come into effect until mid-2029. With the ban now scheduled to go forward for adoption at MEPC 76, the Clean Arctic Alliance called for waivers to not be granted by Arctic coastal states and for the deadline beyond which exemptions would not apply to be brought forward.

“Today’s International Maritime Organization decision is a massive missed opportunity to provide urgently needed protection for the Arctic and Indigenous Peoples who rely on those waters,” said Mellisa Johnson, Director of the Alaska-based Bering Sea Elders Group who spoke at the IMO meeting as a representative of Pacific Environment. “Even worse, today’s approval of the ban will inevitably cause widespread confusion, with the wider world assuming that a ban means ending HFO use in the Arctic when in fact, the IMO has put in place only a modest and likely temporary reduction in its use for the first ten years. We cannot wait ten years to stop HFO use in the Arctic. Ten years is simply too long to wait!”

Heavy fuel oil is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel that powers shipping throughout the world’s oceans, accounting for 80% of marine fuel used worldwide. Around 80% 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.

The regulation approved by the IMO will allow 74% of Arctic shipping to continue with business as usual, reducing the use of HFO by only 16% and the carriage of HFO as fuel by 30% when it takes effect in July 2024, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. The analysis also found that between July 2024 and July 2029, when the ban becomes fully effective, the amount of HFO used and carried in the Arctic is likely to increase as shipping in the Arctic increases, and as newer ships replace older vessels and are able to take advantage of the exemption or change flag and seek a waiver from the ban.

As Arctic heating drives sea ice melt and opens up Arctic waters further, even larger non-Arctic state-flagged vessels running on HFO are likely to divert to Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times. This, combined with an increase in Arctic state-flagged vessels targeting previously non-accessible resources, will greatly increase the risks of HFO spills in areas that are difficult to reach, and that lack any significant oil spill containment equipment.

“An HFO ban encompasses just one of the many actions that we think is vital to continuing our way of life we have enjoyed for millennia,” said Austin Ahmasuk, Kawerak Marine Advocate, Nome, Alaska. “Climate change is clearly making possible dramatic increases to shipping activity in the Gulf of Anydyr, northern Bering Sea, and Bering Strait as transits increase along the northern sea route. As the IMO makes decisions about the future of our indigenous way of life related to the climate change we are experiencing it seems that the accelerator is being mashed to more climate change and possibly threatening the arctic way of life and perhaps the whole world.”

Already banned in Antarctic waters, if HFO is spilled in cold polar waters, it breaks down slowly, proving almost impossible to clean up. A HFO spill would have long-term devastating effects on Arctic Indigenous communities, livelihoods and the marine ecosystems they depend upon. HFO is also a greater source of harmful emissions of air pollutants, such as sulphur oxide, and particulate matter, including black carbon, than alternative fuels such as distillate fuel and liquefied natural gas (LNG). When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is up to five times more than when emitted at lower latitudes, such as in the tropics.

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This was adapted from the joint press release issued by the Clean Arctic Alliance of which Ocean Conservancy is a member.