A set of rules that will govern shipping in international Arctic waters is on the edge of approval this week as members of the International Maritime Organization meet and are expected to approve proposed new safety measures with implementation set for 2017.
The code, which is expected to be adopted in its totality next spring, covers everything from equipment design and construction to search and rescue and environmental protection issues, and has been agreed on by the United Nations organization over the course of several years.
Kevin Harun, Arctic program director for Pacific Environment, is the only non-shipping industry representative with access to the meetings. He said years of talks have resulted in some victories, such as a complete ban on the discharge of oil and oily mixtures, and some defeats, such as an attempt to ban the use of heavy fuel when shipping in the Arctic.
Harun said some nations, such as Russia, argued that the cost of using alternatives to heavy fuel would be too great and inhibit use of the Arctic waterways as a means of transporting materials between Asia and Europe.
In 2011, the International Maritime Organization banned heavy fuel oil from the Antarctic, banning the carriage of the material as cargo or used as fuel. Only ships involved in search and rescue operations are exempt. Harun said he and others argued for similar rules to be added to the polar transportation chapter of the Marine Pollution regulations that already exist in international waters.
"A heavy fuel oil spill would be carried on the ice and water currents and could cause an ecosystem collapse," said Harun. "Things don't break down as easily in the Arctic."
Harun said a placeholder was put in place to allow for future debate on the issue but at the moment, the attempt to ban heavy fuels was dead. Black carbon emissions were also not addressed in the October draft of the Polar Code.
"They are not ready to deal with it yet," he said. "They don't want anything to derail" the passage of the entire document.
Some 152 countries, representing more than 99 percent of the world's shipping, are signers of the Maritime Pollution convention, or Marpol 73/78, and all signers are subject to its requirements.
Harun said that getting a complete ban on oily discharge and garbage disposal in the Arctic was a success, however, noting that Russia argued against the restrictions, saying they would be difficult to meet when ships are at sea for 30 days or longer as they often are in the Arctic. But Canadian representatives who work in similar conditions said they had managed to retrofit their vessels to accommodate storage of the waste, including untreated sewage.
Another provision viewed by many as a success requires vessels to avoid marine mammals, partly to reduce the chances of collisions between hunters at sea and large vessels. A database of areas where larger concentrations of marine mammals exist will be used to guide shipping route plans, Harun said.
Harun noted that while the marine mammal provisions were good, there was a complete absence of representation from the people for whom marine mammal protection mattered the most in the Arctic -- the Native residents.
"There are more than 120 countries represented but there is not one indigenous person there," he said. "The United States can invite delegations from the state department and industry. It should invite indigenous people."
As the Polar Code nears completion and goes before the organization for a vote, those involved in maritime policy caution that it is a starting place, not a finished document. In an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Michael Kingston, an Irish lawyer and partner in the marine trades, pointed out that while rules such as mandatory safety training and polar ship certification are positive, he has concerns that the code might lead people to have a "false sense of security."
For example, he said, certain categories of vessels are allowed to go into certain kinds of ice under the Polar Code. But there is no map of what ice conditions are present where, Kingston noted.
The Northern Sea Route is increasingly popular as a means of travel. In 2011, only four ships had completed the passage -- two years later that number rose to 71. Exploration in northern waters, as well as passenger traffic, is also increasing.