My Turn: Arctic Council Can Protect Environment by Promoting Ban on Fuel Oil

Liana James
Date: March 7, 2017

This week the eight permanent members of the Arctic Council, six organizations that represent the Arctic indigenous peoples and numerous observer states are meeting in Juneau, Alaska, as the U.S. heads into the final months of its two-year Council chairmanship. Because the Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the planet, there is a tremendous urgency to address the causes of climate change in the Arctic.

With this in mind, the Arctic Council has been studying the specific role of short-lived climate pollutants (primarily methane and black carbon) in the Arctic region for several years. It now has the chance to act.

While oil and gas developments in the Arctic threaten to become a significant source of atmospheric methane, there are many sources of black carbon, which is the strongest light-absorbing component of particulate matter and a critical contributor to human-induced climate warming. These sources include diesel engines, forest fires, agricultural burning and burning heavy fuel oil (HFO).

The use of HFO as shipping fuel is expected to increase dramatically due to the significant loss of Arctic sea ice coverage and the availability of Arctic shipping lanes for longer periods of the year. In fact, an analysis by the U.S. Coast Guard found that expanding commercial ventures in the Arctic have increased maritime traffic in the Bering Strait and that from 2008 to 2012, traffic through the Bering Strait increased by 118 percent. In addition, the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System projects that shipping will increase by at least 75 percent from 2013 to 2025 in the U.S. Arctic alone.

Although new shipping activity will create economic opportunities for the region, it will also increase both the climate and spill risks associated with using HFO as shipping fuel. Due to the incomplete combustion of HFO, burning HFO produces a significant amount of black carbon, which warms the atmosphere through two different mechanisms. First, when black carbon rises up in the air, it directly warms the Arctic atmosphere by absorbing solar radiation that would otherwise have been reflected to space. Second, when black carbon is deposited on light-colored surfaces, such as Arctic snow and ice, it reduces the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. This process results in the retention of heat and ultimately contributes to accelerated melting of Arctic snow and ice. In fact, a recent study published by the Arctic Council found that black carbon emitted from in-Arctic sources has five times the warming effect than black carbon emitted at mid-latitudes. A primary reason for this is that a much higher fraction of within-Arctic black carbon emissions deposit on snow and sea ice than mid-latitude emissions.

Furthermore, not only is the use of HFO an enormous source of black carbon, but in the event of an oil spill arising from a shipping accident, HFO is also virtually impossible to clean up as it quickly emulsifies on the ocean surface. A shortage of “detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, search and rescue infrastructure, and overall maritime domain awareness” make effectively cleaning up an HFO spill even more unlikely, as highlighted by the State of Alaska’s Northern Waters Task Force.

Consequently, the Clean Arctic Alliance, a group of fifteen NGOs, including the Clean Air Task Force, is calling on the Arctic Council to recommend that the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for regulating international shipping, phase out the use of HFO as marine fuel in Arctic waters.

The IMO has already implemented a ban on the use of HFO in Antarctica, an ecosystem that is equally vulnerable to disturbance and pollution. Phasing out the use of HFO in the Arctic will not completely eliminate climate change, but its continued use in the Arctic not only undercuts climate mitigation efforts, but it also poses a substantial threat to the marine environment. It is time for the Arctic Council to fully acknowledge the risks associated with the use of HFO as shipping fuel and call for transition to alternative fuels.

Liana James is a Clean Air Task Force shipping policy consultant.

Pacific Environment is a founding member of the Clean Arctic Alliance.