Council Right to Address Fuel Risks

News-Miner Community Perspective:
Kevin Harun
Date: May 12, 2017
Delegates at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting just prior to the United States’ assumption of its chairmanship. Leona Aglukkaq, Canadian minister for the Arctic Council, is seated at the head chair. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is two seats to the left.

As a former Fairbanks Borough Assembly member, I am very excited that this week, my hometown is host to foreign ministers from across the Arctic. Arctic challenges are accruing at a dizzying pace as the climate changes more rapidly than predicted. But, on at least one front, prevention of a worst-case oil spill associated with shipping, there is exceptional progress to report with leadership and cooperation among Arctic nations.

Recognizing that melting sea ice would make way for increased shipping in the Arctic, the Arctic Council in 2009 analyzed potential impacts associated with oncoming shipping. Arctic shipping is challenged by remote, hazardous conditions including lack of modern charts, hurricane force winds, ice and darkness. Marine resources at stake include internationally important populations of whales, other marine mammals, migratory birds and fish, many of which remain the foundation of subsistence diets for indigenous communities, as they have been for thousands of years.

In its analysis, the Arctic Council concluded that the top threat posed by increased shipping would be a spill of heavy fuel oil. Literally the bottom of the barrel after lighter fuels are distilled, heavy fuel oil is exceptionally toxic, persistent and hard to remove if spilled. Heavy fuel oil also emits high levels of black carbon when burned, an additional concern in the Arctic where black soot accelerates melting of ice.

The Arctic Council is a great convener of international arctic questions and ideas, but, in the case of shipping, international law is set by the International Maritime Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Because of the risks posed by a spill, the IMO has already banned heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters. In late March, Arctic Council members the United States, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Finland were joined by Germany and the Netherlands in recommending that the IMO address phasing out or reducing the risks posed by a potential spill of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters. The IMO will likely enter into negotiated rulemaking where there will be time to customize laws to phase out or minimize risks of heavy fuel. These rules should reduce liabilities for shippers while protecting arctic communities both served by shipping but in harm’s way of potential spills.As alternatives to heavy fuel oil, ships would likely move to lighter fuels or LNG, which pose less risk if spilled. As the IMO recently passed rules requiring all ships internationally to lower sulfur emissions by 2020, many shippers will already be looking to switch to cleaner fuels.

As alternatives to heavy fuel oil, ships would likely move to lighter fuels or LNG, which pose less risk if spilled. As the IMO recently passed rules requiring all ships internationally to lower sulfur emissions by 2020, many shippers will already be looking to switch to cleaner fuels.

Support for addressing the risk of heavy fuel oil and potential spills has come from other voices as well including Alaska tribal organizations, the European Parliament and Arctic shippers.

As the Arctic Council meets this week, they should be proud that their insights have laid the groundwork to motivate the international community to create international law to address the risks of heavy fuel oil.

Kevin Harun is a former member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly and program director for Pacific Environment, a non-government organization with consultative status at the International Maritime Organization. He is based in Anchorage.