Arctic & Antarctica
The Arctic Council has identified oil spills from ships as a major threat to the Arctic marine environment, Rick Steiner notes. JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Opinion: Canada must push for ban on Arctic shipping heavy fuel oil

As sea ice continues to melt, northern shipping is forecast to increase. A spill is a tragedy that can, and must, be averted.

Canadian leaders attending the Canadian Marine Advisory Council in Montreal this week should heed the lessons of an ongoing fuel oil spill as a teachable moment for Canadian Arctic policy.

The cautionary tale involves a remote community, accessible only by air or sea, where residents depend on the sea. An ore freighter grounded in a storm, spilling hundreds of tons of its heavy fuel oil into a productive coastal ecosystem. Response took weeks to begin, fishing was suspended, and much of the toxic fuel spread across hundreds of square kilometres of the offshore ecosystem. Shoreline cleanup continues, and it may be years before the injured environment recovers.

Canada’s Far North?

Not this time, but it could be.  

The ongoing heavy fuel oil spill described above is in the remote Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. But as Arctic sea ice continues to melt, industry is expanding northward and shipping is forecast to increase dramatically along Canada’s Arctic coast. The Arctic Council has identified oil spills from ships as a major threat to the Arctic marine environment.

Transport Canada and other Canadian leaders should take all steps possible to reduce the risks and impacts of shipping in Arctic waters. Beyond the Polar Code adopted in 2014 by the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO), additional Arctic ship safety measures needed include rescue and escort tugs, routing agreements, ship tracking, speed limits, noise reduction technologies and expanded pilotage.

One of the easiest steps to reduce impacts of spills is to ban the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic shipping.  

Heavy fuel oil has historically been the low-cost fuel of choice for the shipping industry. But it is dirty, toxic, virtually impossible to clean up and highly persistent if spilled in cold northern waters.

In addition to the challenges of Arctic weather, northern communities have no realistic capacity to respond to spills. A spill in the wrong place at the wrong time has the potential to do irreparable, long-term damage to Arctic fish, whales, walrus, narwhals, seals and seabirds.

The principal method for responding to a fuel oil spill in sea ice is to ignite it, but burning heavy oil emits toxic air pollution and burn residues sink to the seafloor contaminating seabed ecosystems.

Due to its high risk in sensitive polar regions, heavy fuel oil is already banned in Antarctic and Svalbard (Norway) waters. Arctic shippers can easily switch to lighter marine diesel, which is much more forgiving and less persistent when spilled. Fortunately, Arctic communities are powered largely by diesel, gas, hydropower  and other energy sources — not heavy fuel oil.

A ban on heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters is now under consideration at the IMO. If adopted, the ban will significantly reduce the environmental risk of Arctic shipping.  

Addressing the IMO, renowned Canadian human rights advocate and former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Sheila Watt-Cloutier advised: “The language of economics and technology is always calling for more delays. … I understand this same lame excuse, which is a very outdated card to play at this stage of our climate crisis. I would say do not play this card when it comes to banning heavy fuel oil, which has potential to create extreme irreparable damage to our Arctic oceans. … And I repeat the Oceans are the life force and source of life for us as Inuit of the Arctic.” Well said.

A heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic is a tragedy that can, and must, be averted. Canada can provide leadership in protecting northern waters and coastal communities by championing an IMO ban on heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters.  

Rick Steiner is a marine consultant in Anchorage Alaska, and was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska for 30 years. In March, he conducted the preliminary environmental assessment of the Solomon Islands spill for that country’s government and the United Nations.

See Montreal Gazette Op-Ed . . .