An International Maritime Organisation working group has recommended to ban the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic shipping, with some key exceptions, starting from July 1, 2024.
On the banks of the River Thames in London this week, a little-known group met to determine the future of Arctic shipping. In the halls of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations agency which regulates international shipping, the seventh session of the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR7) convened. A number of issues were on the agenda, but one bore particular relevance for the circumpolar north: whether to ban the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by ships sailing in Arctic waters.
On Friday, in a landmark decision, a working group within PPR7 tasked with reviewing HFO in Arctic waters submitted a report recommending to ban the use of the thick, tar-like fuel – the most common one used by the global shipping industry – in the Arctic starting from July 1, 2024. The ban will now move forward for consideration and approval by the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee 76, which will take place this autumn.
There are several important exceptions to the proposed ban. First, ships engaged in search and rescue or oil spill preparedness and response are exempted.
Second, in an exception that was integral to securing Russia’s support, states whose coastlines border Arctic waters may waive the ban for ships that fly their own flag while operating in waters subject to their sovereignty or jurisdiction until July 1, 2029. This means that a country like Russia, in whose waters most Arctic shipping takes place, would be able to issue waivers for Russian-flagged ships sailing between the ports of Murmansk and Tiksi, for instance.
While environmental groups view the ban as too slow and too incomplete, it could have been weaker. At one point during the discussions, an unnamed delegation suggested not only providing waivers for voyages in domestic waters, but also in “domestic waters and ports or terminals outside Arctic waters under the jurisdiction fo another Party.” This could have been, for instance, between the port of Sabetta, Russia and Rotterdam, Netherlands. This proposal was struck down, however, since, as the working group’s draft report notes, “The majority of delegations that spoke expressed the view that the proposed text could potentially exclude too many ships from the proposed ban, resulting in uneven [sic] playing field in the region and defeating the intent of the ban.”
While the report does not say which delegation was campaigning for a more generous waiver, it is likely that it was Russia, with the support of China and Saudi Arabia (even though neither of these countries sent delegates to the working group meetings). The majority of seafaring voyages within the Arctic take place within Russia’s waters, so the country will bear greater economic costs from a ban than other Arctic coastal states. Every year along Russia’s Northern Sea Route, a series of domestic journeys known as “Northern Supply” deliver goods and cargo to coastal communities, many of which, especially as one ventures farther east, have no road or rail connection to the rest of the country.
The main reason why HFO continues to be used in the Arctic, even though the IMO already prohibits its use in the Antarctic, is simply because it is cheap. The thick, tar-like substance is the most common fuel in the shipping industry and less expensive than other, cleaner fuels such as distillates. These price savings come at an environmental cost, however, especially in frigid waters in a place like the Arctic. HFO does not break down easily, so any spill could be devastating to the region’s communities and environment. The lingering oil could coat animals’ fur and feathers, wash up on shorelines, and negatively impact Indigenous Peoples who still whale and fish for subsistence.
HFO also has higher black carbon emissions than any other shipping fuel. When it burns, it emits soot particles into the air. Again, these have a particularly adverse impact in the Arctic, especially in winter. When the black dust coats sea ice and snow, it lowers their reflectivity, or albedo, and in turn accelerates warming trends.
To mitigate these negative impacts, the Clean Arctic Alliance, a group of 18 environmental non-profit organizations, has led a multi-year campaign to pressure the IMO to ban HFO in the Arctic. As deliberations kicked off at the start of the week, protestors from the Extinction Rebellion and Ecohustler movements gave the alliance’s efforts heightened visibility by erecting a giant polar bear standing on top of an iceberg. Under a seven-meter statue of a seafarer looking out to the Thames dedicated to sailors lost at sea, protestors hoisted signs that proclaimed, “Dirty ship fuels are a climate crime.”
The geopolitics of the Arctic heavy fuel oil ban
These environmental groups also enjoyed the important support of many countries among the IMO’s 174 member states. Among those who introduced the initial language for a ban were Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the U.S. Earlier this week, Canada also announced that it supports prohibiting the fuel. Iceland and Sweden, too, remarked in the final plenary that it supported the ban, with the Swedish delegate even expressing, “We had hoped for an earlier entry into force with no more exceptions.” This means, then, that within the Arctic, the debate over whether to ban HFO was really a case of seven (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States) versus one (Russia).
Support for a ban from Washington, D.C. is surprising given the Trump administration’s anti-environment stance. One attendee remarked privately that the current administration’s general incompetence within international diplomacy has led it to ignore the more arcane areas of foreign policy – among which the dealings of an IMO subcommittee would inevitably figure. This disregard has given an unintentional second wind to some of the the greener policies of the Obama administration.
In its impact assessment submitted to the IMO, the U.S. reported that an HFO ban would help to avoid spill costs, better protect Alaska’s seafood industry, and prevent the “loss of marine and natural resources important to the food security and subsistence culture of approximately 54,040 Alaskans, 41,785 of whom are Alaska Native/American Indians.” On PPR7’s last day, Mellisa Johnson, executive director at Bering Sea Elders in Alaska, expressed, “I’m pleased with the support from the U.S. Delegation and acknowledgement of potential impacts to Alaska’s Native population and their way of life.”
At the same time, the U.S. is cognizant of the economic of an HFO ban. Its impact assessment detailed that a ban “could increase bulk fuel costs to local communities by US$0.04 to $0.06 per gallon if tanker vessel owners switch to marine gas oil.” Resource extraction sites that rely heavily on shipping could also face cost increases: the Red Dog zinc ore mine in northwest Alaska, for instance, might have to contend with $9 million in additional shipping costs per year (approximately 0.53% of annual revenue).
The Russian delegation, however, expressed much graver concerns about the economic burden as opposed to the environmental benefit of an HFO ban. Russia framed the burden as being borne by Indigenous Peoples and coastal communities, who will have to pay more for their goods if shipping costs rose.
In comments submitted to the IMO in December 2018, Russia stressed, “It is envisaged that the matter of impact assessment should be the financial burden which would come upon local communities and the region as a whole rather than the benefits related to the unspent costs for response and clean-up of an unlikely spill.”
Originally from Nome, Alaska and with relatives on the other side of the Bering Strait, Johnson, however, expressed doubts that Indigenous Peoples in Russia would be opposed to a ban merely due to higher costs. She observed, “Their way of life is similar. I have family there that practice the same reliance on marine ecosystems as Indigenous Peoples.” Their health, too, then, would depend on maintaining clean, oil-spill-free Arctic waters.
The axis against an HFO ban: Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia
In a remarkable demonstration of geopolitics, following the presentation of the working group’s report on banning the use of HFO, Russia took the opportunity to criticize some of the proceedings and decisions. The country’s delegate expressed:
“Chair, the current situation in the bunker (fuel) market does not allow us even to make short-term forecasts. Despite this, we’re being invited to make decisions, the consequences of which will come into force after nine years. Although it is now impossible to predict to what extent the use of heavy fuel oil will be relevant by this time, or whether the negative consequences associated with its use will continue, we believe that it is our citizens and the economy who again will become hostage to this approach.”
This language built on their earlier comments that present regulations and protections in Arctic shipping were already adequate. Russian reports leading up to PPR7 pointed out that no spills of HFO have occurred within its waters, and only one has occurred anywhere in the Arctic since 1970.
During the final comments on Friday on the working group’s report, the Russian delegate further claimed that the science underpinning a ban on HFO was improper and politically motivated. He added:
“Environmental bans, chair, in our opinion, can be developed and applied only as extreme measures and in thoroughly justifiable cases. Otherwise, as was rightly noted by colleagues in discussions at the working group, it would simply be easier to ban shipping entirely. This is a rather dangerous trend, chair, especially given the IMO’s extremely important negotiations on the very important issue of reducing greenhouse gases. The results of these negotiations will largely determine the state and future prospect for the development of international shipping as a whole. In this regard, we’d once again urge the IMO to return to the path of proper scientific and technical review of decisions.”
China and Saudi Arabia came to the country’s side, similarly emphasizing the “unscientific” nature of the proceedings. The Chinese delegate stated,
“Our delegation fully supports the intervention mentioned by the Russian Federation. Also, we had mentioned more than one time that the decisions by this organization should be based on scientific, comprehensive analysis and be objective. We should not be banned by this extreme side of other delegations. Especially, we need to seek balanced and practical measures. This concerns the fame and the name of this organization as well as the further development of this organization. We should all be aware that what is happening to others might be happening to you in the future.”
China’s ominous tone was not shared by the other Arctic coastal states and environmental groups who were generally pleased, if not fully satisfied, with the recommendation for a ban. Their remaining concerns stem from the potential negative impacts that delays on the ban’s implementation will have, particularly on Indigenous communities.
Indigenous voices take center stage at the IMO
Apart from the string of interventions from Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, one of the most remarkable displays of geopolitics at PPR7 involved Indigenous Peoples. Speaking to their rising strength within global governance, Indigenous representatives from groups such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council and communities in Alaska and Canada enjoyed significant floor time.
Earlier in the week, as part of a presentation on the impacts of HFO on Indigenous Peoples delivered by environmental non-profit Pacific Environment, Verner Wilson, a Siberian Yupik from Dillingham, Alaska, stressed, “Our Arctic ancestors are smiling at what’s going on here. People are starting to hear Arctic Indigenous Peoples. I think we’ve come a long way. I’m glad that you’re all here to be able to hear our concerns and what we want for the future for this region that is so important for our one and only earth.”
Exemplifying just how far Indigenous Peoples have come, Lisa Koperqualuk, vice president of international affairs at the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), offered, “One of the reasons I am here is we are applying for consultative status membership at the IMO and letting you know.” Consultative status would allow the ICC to attend, observe, and offer expertise to various IMO meetings without needing to be invited by existing consultative status members such as Pacific Environment or Friends of the Earth.
ICC, which represents Indigenous Peoples in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, is arguably the most powerful transnational Indigenous Peoples’ organization in the Arctic, and its admission as a consultative member would represent a major achievement for Indigenous Peoples in global governance.
ICC also feted its participation at PPR7 by hosting a glamorous reception on Monday night, with throat singing, hor d’oeuvres featuring elk, Arctic char, shrimp, and other polar species, and the presentation of an ivory carving depicting a beluga whale hunt to add to the IMO’s collection. Most of the organization’s gifts have come from countries or shipping lines. Few, if any, have come from Indigenous Peoples.
Indigenous Peoples’ work this week and in the years running up to PPR7 has been critical to helping achieve a cleaner, safer Arctic – the region they call home. Even though through higher grocery costs, utility bills, and gas prices, they will be the ones paying out of pocket for those additional protections, this time, they have helped decide on these regulations rather than having other countries or actors decide unilaterally for them.
In the somewhat unlikely place of the former imperial capital of London, this week’s deliberations at the IMO have represented a significant victory not just for a cleaner Arctic, but for efforts to decolonize global governance and global shipping, too.
This post was updated on 24 February to reflect the fact that it was the Clean Arctic Alliance and not the Clean Shipping Coalition that has been driving the campaign to ban heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. A clarification was also added regarding the organizers of the protests outside the IMO (Extinction Rebellion and Ecohustler). I apologize for these errors.