Canada Supports Ban on Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

Credit: Dave Walsh
Credit: Dave Walsh

Published Feb 18, 2020 5:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Government of Canada has announced its support for a ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters.

The Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, François-Philippe Champagne, made the announcement saying they will be seeking a phased-in approach to the ban. 

Canada's support for the ban comes during this week's meeting of the IMO Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) Sub-Committee in London. Support for an IMO ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic had previously come from a number of countries, including six of the eight Arctic states. Canada, along with Russia, had previously withheld support for the HFO ban.

“Canada is proud to play a leadership role at the IMO by supporting this ban and is committed to continue working with other countries, northern residents and marine stakeholders to help reduce economic impacts on northern communities,” said Garneau.

Transport Canada has conducted a domestic impact assessment of the proposed heavy fuel oil ban in the Arctic based on the methodology agreed upon at an IMO committee meeting in February 2019. The assessment notes that the persistence of HFO means that there is a higher likelihood of physical fouling and ingestion of oil by marine wildlife. An HFO spill would also present possible shoreline contamination, threatening wildlife and traditional activities of Indigenous and Inuit populations, who may become exposed to the contamination directly or indirectly.

At freezing temperatures, oil behavior changes, and fuels will adhere to the ice surface more readily; it will then spread underneath the ice as temperatures increase. Because HFO does not evaporate as quickly as other fuels, it is more likely to be trapped in ice. Recovery of oil in ice-infested waters can make mechanical recovery difficult. It has also been estimated that the clean-up costs for an HFO spill in the Arctic could be more expensive.

Although other, lighter fuels (e.g., marine diesel) that could replace HFO have higher toxicity to marine life, they evaporate more quickly and are less persistent in the environment. Therefore, HFO presents a greater longer-term ecological risk compared to other marine fuels that are available, such as marine diesel and other distillate fuels.

Communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, part of northern Quebec, Labrador, and part of Northern Manitoba could either be directly or indirectly affected by a heavy fuel oil ban in the Arctic. The majority of the population in these communities are Indigenous, primarily Inuit, Innu, and Cree. HFO is generally used by bulk carriers serving mines and general cargo vessels and tankers servicing communities. 

The analysis estimates that the price increases from an HFO ban could result in additional product price increases for community resupply products in the range of 0.7 to 1.9 percent. The report notes food insecurity is already prevalent in some communities and concludes that food security would be impacted by an increase in shipping costs. However, benefits include the avoidance of loss of marine and coastal natural resources important to food security; the avoidance of loss of culturally important subsistence activities; and the avoidance of adverse impacts to Arctic marine and coastal ecosystems resulting from an HFO spill.

In addition to the community impacts, the impact assessment suggests that the increased costs associated with the proposed HFO ban could impact the competitiveness of Canada’s mining sector and Canada’s Port of Churchill, the nation's only northern port shipping grain overseas.

Andrew Dumbrille, Senior Sustainable Shipping Specialist a WWF Canada, said: “Canada is to be commended for working towards protecting the Arctic marine environment and ensuring communities have access to a clean ocean for food and culture – but the federal government now has the obligation to ensure any potential costs associated with banning HFO don’t impact people in Northern communities.

Clean Arctic Alliance Lead Advisor Dr. Sian Prior said: “The IMO must not entertain any arguments calling for a delay in the implementation of an Arctic ban on HFO. The use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic is increasing, with a 46 percent increase in the volume of HFO fuel carried by ships in the Arctic between 2015 and 2017 and a 57 percent increase in the amount of HFO used. This will only increase the risks of HFO spills and impacts from black carbon in the region.”