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Which Shipping Companies Are Ready for the Coming Arctic Heavy Fuel Oil Ban?

Magdalenefjorden, Svalbard

First published on the shipping news website Splash 24/7 on 13/9/2018

In April this year, a meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC72) in London agreed to move forward on developing a ban on heavy fuel oil – for use and carriage as fuel from Arctic shipping. My colleague Dr Sian Prior and I wrote about how the world’s dirtiest shipping fuel would be banned from the Arctic – why it should be banned, and how the ban was going to take place.

Heavy fuel oil is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel accounting for 80% of marine fuel used worldwide. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO. With climate change fuelling high winter temperatures and driving sea ice melt, Arctic waters are opening up to increased shipping in search of shorter transit times – and greatly increasing the risks of HFO spills.

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 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 outside the Arctic, such as in the tropics.

Now, with the northern hemisphere winter and next month’s MEPC73 approaching, the Clean Arctic Alliance has publicly called on shipping companies already carrying cargo across the Arctic to be transparent about their choice of fuel. While the IMO’s Polar Code already recommends ship operators “not to use or carry heavy fuel oil in the Arctic”, it is not binding. With an Arctic HFO ban on the way, the Clean Arctic Alliance wants to know – which shipping companies will become flagships for a HFO Free Arctic?

We are going to keep asking – companies using the Arctic “shortcut” bear the burden of responsibility for ensuring that their transits neither risk devastating the already beleaguered Arctic environment with an oil spill, and that their emissions do not further contribute to the Arctic melt.

As a communications advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance – and one that has handled crisis communications for a number of organisations, I finding the responses – or lack thereof – intriguing. Some of the Arctic shippers have failed to respond either publicly or privately; some respond with some good information, showing a willingness to move in the right direction, but do not seem to clearly understand or engage with the issue. Perhaps they are just hoping that the Arctic/HFO issue will go away… which it will not.   

We recently challenged the world’s biggest container shipping company, Maersk, to come clean about how it plans to fuel the Venta Maersk on its trial run across the northern sea route. To its credit, Maersk responded, directly, privately and via shipping media and social media. The answer, however was a little ambiguous, with Maersk simply saying it planned to use “low sulphur fuel”. When we pointed out that such a fuel could be low in sulphur, and still a viscous residual fuel, Maersk responded on Twitter, saying that “The Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel that we will use for this trial is on spec with Marine Distillate Fuels, if not better. On this trial journey it is the best choice of fuel to use from both an operational and environmental point of view.”

Acknowledging that this particular fuel will result in lower emissions of sulphur and particulates, but that it still falls between the description of a residual fuel and a distillate fuel, the Clean Arctic Alliance quizzed Maersk about what would happen to such a fuel if spilled in the cold waters of the Arctic – would it evaporate, or would it emulsify? We’re looking forward to hearing more from Maersk on this.

We want to know what the potential environmental impact of a spill of Maersk’s choice of fuel would be on Arctic wildlife and communities. Elsewhere, we noticed that Maersk has fitted a vessel – albeit a product tanker – in Rotterdam with Flettner rotors, in an effort to reduce fuel consumption, so we are heartened to see that the company is taking some progressive steps towards decarbonisation.

Following news that the Australia’s Ironbark Zinc will charter the world’s largest icebreaking bulk carrier, the Nunavik – owned by Canadian shipping company Fednav – for its zinc mining operations in northern Greenland, the Clean Arctic Alliance laid down a similar challenge to Fednav. While there was no public statement from Fednav, in a press statement regarding its operations in Greenland, Ironbark did state that it “ensured that the Nunavik made this journey consuming low sulphur marine diesel oil instead of conventional heavy fuel oil (HFO) while in Greenland waters.”

Ironbark’s statement is, to some degree, laudable, but it opens up several questions. The Nunavik is reportedly using heavy fuel oil while in the open ocean. Obviously when it enters the Arctic waters around Greenland, it will presumably still have HFO on board for the return journey unless it has all been used on the outward journey. By not burning HFO in Greenland’s waters, Fednav is avoiding emissions of black carbon, which speed up Arctic melting. However black carbon emissions from burning HFO while the ship is operating on the open ocean can also contribute to the ice melt. Furthermore, by carrying HFO on board, Fednav is flirting with a disaster of unimaginable proportions, with potential long term impacts for Greenland’s communities and livelihoods. Perhaps neither Fednav or Ironbark have read the small print – the forthcoming discussions on a ban on heavy fuel oil will cover a ban not just on use, but on its carriage for use as marine fuel oil. In other words, you cannot sail into the Arctic with HFO on board, while burning something else and claim that it’s all good.

Last week, the Clean Arctic Alliance made a public request to China’s COSCO, the world’s fourth largest container ship company, about its use of HFO in the Arctic, following the voyage of the Tian’en across the Northern Sea Route to Rouen, in France. At the time of publishing this article, COSCO had not yet responded. We’re hoping that COSCO, and China, can come on board and support an Arctic HFO ban. A note to COSCO – we appreciate you were transporting wind turbines to Europe, but this nod to the global energy transition doesn’t get you off the hook.

Back at MEPC72 in April, Russia was one of the laggards when it came to supporting a ban on HFO. So it’s heartening to see that during a recent summit, both President Vladimir Putin  and  Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto agreed to work on moving towards “more environmentally friendly fuels in the Arctic” with the Kremlin suggesting that the prohibition of residual fuel use and carriage, and simultaneously reducing black carbon emissions could be a first step.

Although President Putin had vowed earlier this year to increase Northern Sea Route (NSR) shipping tenfold, the NSR has already seen 81% increase in transport volume for the year to date – 9.95m tonnes, compared to the 5.5 million tonnes in the whole of 2017. While the vast majority of this tonnage is destinational shipping – bound for Russian ports and not transit shipping – crossing between the Pacific and Atlantic – a Russian move towards cleaner fuel – albeit still a fossil fuel  – is an important step. While the Clean Arctic Alliance recognise LNG as a transitional fuel for the Arctic, we believe that is in the interest of the global shipping industry to decarbonise entirely. DNV-GL’s Energy Transition Outlook 2018, released this week,  has called for “carbon robust ships, and states that “decarbonization will be one of the megatrends that will shape the maritime industry over the next decades, especially in light of the new IMO greenhouse gas strategy” – and has found that fossil fuel demand will peak globally around 2023.

At October’s MEPC73, we’re also asking member states to renew their commitment to making the Arctic HFO free, while pressing the naysayers and fence-sitters to think again . Getting the international politics right is key – but we need brave shipping industry leaders to bring pressure to bear national governments, and to drive the momentum towards a HFO Free Arctic.

Dave Walsh is Communications Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, made up of not-for-profit organisations committed to a ban on use of HFO as marine fuel in the Arctic.

First published on the shipping news website Splash 24/7 on 13/9/2018