Polar Code Talks Stalled in IMO Subcommittee Meeting

Diane Haecker, Nome Nugget
Date: March 1, 2012
A lone seal resting on sea ice with cargo ship in the distance. Photo Credit: (Techonologia-RC)

In a meeting room in London, far away from the polar regions, the German chairwoman of the International Maritime Organization’s sub committee on ship design and equipment shelved discussions of environmental rules as part of the Polar Code for a year, effectively pushing the completion of the code further into the future.

While the news has not made bold headlines anywhere, it is of importance to Alaska and the region as the Mandatory Polar Code is supposed to establish rules to ensure high levels of shipping safety by including ship construction  provisions, onboard equipment requirements and the inclusion of an environmental protection chapter.

As the IMO sub-committee on ship design and equipment — charged with coordinating work on the Polar Code — discussed both the shipping safety and the environmental component of the Polar Code, Anneliese Jost, the chairwoman of the sub-committee suspended discussions on the environmental part until their next meeting, a year from now.

“In light of the ever-growing need to protect the Arctic environment and communities from the increased impact of shipping, the decision to put off the environmental chapter of the Polar Code for an entire year is an outrage,” wrote Doug Norlen in an email correspondence to The Nome Nugget.

Norlen is with the group Pacific Environment and attended the IMO meeting as an observer in London. Norlen said that there were many countries involved on many sides of the issue. “I would say that this setback represents a collective failure of all countries, including the U.S., to prioritize the environmental parts of the code,” Norlen wrote. “The major objections stem from complaints from the shipping  corporations that get their government allies to raise every objection imaginable in order to block Polar Code progress.”

An IMO spokesperson said that more time is needed to discuss the finer details of a proposed new mandatory Code for ships operating in polar waters.

But not all is lost. A working group tackled the technical parts of the draft Code and the sub-committee agreed with the group’s recommendation to forward relevant sections to the sub-committees on radio communications, search and rescue; fire protection; safety of navigation; stability, load lines and fishing vessel safety; training and watch keeping for their review and input.

The official version according to the IMO spokesperson why talks about environmental rules in the Polar Code were stalled goes like this: in relation to environmental aspects of the Code, “the ship design and equipment sub-committee noted that the working group had been divided as to whether the environmental protection provisions should be elaborated as a part of the Code, or as amendments to the relevant annexes of MARPOL and other appropriate IMO instruments, and decided to keep any decision on environmental requirements to be included in the Code in abeyance pending further consideration by the Marine Environment Protection Committee.” This MEPC is meeting this week in London.

The MARPOL Convention is the main international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by oil, chemicals, and harmful substances in packaged form, sewage and garbage.

The sub-committee agreed to urge the MEPC and other committees to prioritize the discussion on how to make the Polar Code mandatory at their upcoming meetings.

The prospect of saving more than 40 percent in transportation time and fuel costs for ships sailing and transporting goods between East Asia and Europe through the Bering Strait is appealing to shipping companies. As the summer sea ice shrinks significantly and allows the transit through either the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage, more marine traffic can be expected in the future. More traffic enhances the risk of vessel groundings, spills, collisions, discharge of pollutants and noise pollution, especially in the bottleneck that is the Bering Strait. To make the mix even more lethal, add in the lack of navigational charts, inhospitable and violent sea and weather conditions, and no vessel route protocols nor search and rescue infrastructure.

Ten years ago, the IMO, a United Nations agency that establishes standards for the safety and security of worldwide maritime operations, began developing a so-called Polar Code. The Polar Code is meant to lay the ground rules for ships operating in polar waters, both Arctic and Antarctic, and would cover the design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue matters as well as environmental protection. The IMO Assembly agreed to develop a mandatory Polar Code after adopting guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters in 2009. The guidelines are recommendations only, not binding legal requirements on how to operate vessels in Arctic waters.

Alaska’s Northern Waters Task Force recently issued its findings to the Alaska Legislature, including the recommendation to work with the United States and the international community to finalize the Polar Code. In its recommendations the ANWTF reasoned that ships navigating the Arctic are governed by the same requirements as any other open water ships, hence, no polar class or ice capability requirements are mandatory. The ANWTF recommendations paper says that “the IMO needs to finalize the Polar Code to supplement international maritime and environmental conventions that already apply in the Arctic. Polar Code can provide additional requirements regarding rescue equipment, passenger safety, firefighting, ice navigation and navigation in uninhabited areas.” The task force expected the Polar Code would be approved by 2014, but the outcome of last week’s meeting doesn’t not bode well for a timely adoption of a Polar Code.

This week, the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee is meeting to discuss the Polar Code.

Observer Norlen is not confident that this committee will make any progress. “The MEPC also delayed consideration of the Polar Code at its last meeting and we fear it could happen again,” wrote Norlen. “We are very concerned that the IMO and its member states are shirking their responsibilities to develop a Polar Code that protects the Arctic environment and its people.”