NGOs denounce ‘loopholes’ in Arctic HFO regulation

Vessel going through Arctic waters. Credit: IHS Markit

A new draft regulation for the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters was agreed during last week’s meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response. The document proposes a ban on the tar-like HFO effective from 1 July 2024.

Environmental groups gave the report a cautious welcome, but were quick to highlight several loopholes that would delay its full implementation. The first would allow Arctic countries to permit the continued use of HFO by their own vessels. The second means that ships with double hulls or protected fuel tanks will also be able to carry and use HFO as fuel until 2029.

In a statement, the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of 18 environmental NGOs, highlighted that there was also a further delay on an action that would reduce emissions of so-called “black carbon” from ships in the region. When combusted in a vessel’s engine, HFO produces particles of soot, which are subsequently deposited across Arctic snow and ice.

The presence of the black dust thereby lowers the reflective potential of the frozen land and sea and accelerates the absorption of heat. As sea ice melts, warns the Clean Arctic Alliance, ever-larger vessels running on HFO are likely to opt for Arctic routes to shorten their transit times.

“IMO member states must now step up to their obligations to pursue additional safeguards; if HFO continues to be burned in the Arctic until June 2029, Arctic coastal communities will be subjected to the risk of HFO spills and higher levels of air pollution – so it is in the best interest of Arctic states to be expedient in phasing out HFO in both domestic and international Arctic waters sooner,” said Dr. Sian Prior, lead adviser to the Clean Arctic Alliance.

The draft regulation will now be forwarded for approval to a meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee in October 2020 (MEPC 76).