Environmental Coalition Urges Canada and Russia to Implement Prohibition on HFO in the Arctic

SCF Baltica
Sovcomflot crude oil tanker SCF Baltica in the Arctic. (Source: Courtesy of Sovcomflot)

Environmental advocates criticize Russia’s and Canada’s decision to reject or delay the implementation of a new regulation that will ban the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic starting in mid-2024.

The heavy fuel oil (HFO) ban for the Arctic, a new regulation to curb the use of this type of potentially hazardous fuel in the region, was added as an amendment to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) after a multi-year negotiation process in the International Maritime Organization (IMO). 

The regulation passed in 2021 and took effect on November 1, 2022 and puts in place a ban on the use of HFO for vessels traveling in the Arctic starting on July 1, 2024. HFO is the cheapest and dirtiest type of marine fuel resulting in large amounts of black carbon emissions and presents a substantial risk to the region’s ecosystem in case of accidental spills.

Russia and Canada, however, recently informed the IMO that they will not apply the regulation and do not intend to integrate it into domestic rules. While Russia does not provide a timeline for when or if it intends to implement the new regulation, Canada stated that it aims to comply once it has sorted out its domestic implementation plan, hopefully before the ban takes effect in 2024.

Needs to be strengthened

Even before this latest news, environmental advocacy groups had repeatedly criticized that the ban, which contains provisions for several waivers and exemptions, is insufficient to protect the Arctic Ocean ecosystem. Russia and Canada opting out or delaying the implementation of the regulation, only further signals a need for a renewed push to strengthen the Arctic HFO ban. 

“​​IMO Member States must now strengthen the Arctic heavy fuel oil fuel prohibition regulation by removing the option for Arctic coastal states to issue waivers to the requirements, particularly since it appears that Russia - who pushed for the ability to issue waivers - is delaying approval of the Arctic HFO prohibition amendments which brought the ban into effect,” explains Dr Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. 

The need to strengthen the regulatory regime is especially urgent as the volume of Arctic shipping has increased rapidly over the past decade and continues to do so as larger numbers of cruise ships venture into ecologically sensitive areas and hydrocarbon resources are transported across the region. 

“Canada must rapidly develop its Arctic HFO ban implementation plan”, said Sam Davin, Senior Specialist for Marine Conservation & Shipping at WWF Canada.

“With Arctic vessel traffic continuing to increase, it’s urgent Canada puts in place a plan to rid the Canadian Arctic of the world’s most hazardous and polluting marine fuel.”

Davin also calls out so-called waivers, which allow Arctic coastal states to exempt their flagged vessels from the regulation until mid-2029, and urges Canada to close this loophole. 

Stronger HFO

The advocacy group holds up Norway’s ban on HFO in the waters around Svalbard as an example of what a more stringent regulation could look like.

“Canada should also require all ships operating in domestic waters to use cleaner alternatives to heavy fuels, such as distillates, as Norway has done in the waters of the Svalbard archipelago,” concludes Davin. 

Progress toward an expeditious and complete ban of HFO in the Arctic has been too slow, Clean Arctic Alliance officials explain. Up to three quarters of ships passing through the Arctic may continue to use HFO until mid-2029 if Arctic states make use of their exemptions and waivers.

Meanwhile, a similar ban has successfully been implemented for the waters surrounding Antarctica. The Antarctic HFO ban was adopted already in 2011 and has proven effective. 

“It is over a decade since the Arctic Maritime Shipping Assessment report identified accidental or illegal discharges of oil as the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic, and since a ban on heavy fuels was introduced for the Antarctic,” continues Prior.

She urges the need for discussions at the IMO next month to ensure that states don’t circumvent the Arctic HFO ban by delaying or refusing the regulation’s implementation.

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