Shipping companies urged to stop using dirty fuels in the Arctic
12 July 2017 | Mitigation
Shipping companies are under pressure to phase out use of heavy fuels ahead of a potential ban on their use in the Arctic in the coming years.
The International Maritime Organisation has approved an environmental review of the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by ships in the Arctic. Already banned in Antarctica, HFO is a dense and viscous byproduct of other fuel refining processes.
Oil spills or leaks would be severely toxic, and devastating to flora, fauna and indigenous communities because of the long time the sludge takes to break down in cold water. The risks to fragile Arctic ecosystems could soar as more polar sea lanes become accessible because of climate change.
A Canadian proposal unanimously adopted at the IMO’s marine environmental protection committee last Friday mandates a review of mitigating measures for HFO use, to begin in April 2018. No calls for a ban on HFOs have been formally put on the agenda but “at this early stage, nothing can be ruled in or out,” an IMO spokesperson said.
“I’m fairly sure a ban will happen one day,” said Peter Hinchliffe, the secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping told the Guardian. “We won’t be opposing it but our role [in the IMO] is to make sure we are not causing a disproportionate disadvantage to ships that use HFOs in the Arctic today.”
But as global warming melts new shipping lanes, even larger ships from outside the Arctic are expected to steer through the Polar north in search of shorter journey times, increasing the risk of accidents. In March, Arctic sea ice extent fell to its lowest recorded level since records began 38 years ago.
The shipping industry has already agreed to cut the sulphur content of marine fuels to 0.5% by 2020. “It will be extremely difficult to get HFOs with sulphur content as low as 0.5%. Most ships will turn to lighter fuels – diesel essentially – and that means that imposing an Arctic ban on HFOs may have a very limited life as few ships are likely to go there burning HFOs,” said Hinchliffe.
Hybrid cruise ships
Aslak Ross, the head of marine standards at Maersk Line, told the Guardian that fuels which were both low-sulphur and low-carbon could enter the world market “sooner than many expect”. “This is one of the reasons we have decided not to invest in ‘scrubbers’, not least due to their negative impact on the vessel’s energy efficiency,” he said.
Scrubbing technology allows ships to chemically filter and cleanse their existing HFO blends and avoid the trouble and expense of switching to lighter distillate fuels such as diesel, liquefied natural gas or, potentially, ethanol.
But scrubbers are seen as impractical by industry analysts because they cost $3-5m to fit per vessel, and a lack of shipyards would prevent a retrofit taking place among the world’s fleet by 2020, when the new sulphur standard takes effect.
Many environmentalists and shipowners alike see scrubbers as a way of ensuring the survival of highly polluting fuels at a time when rapid transition is needed. More than 200 LNG-fuelled ships are in service around the world.
Source: The Guardian