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Heavy fuel oil: A threat to Arctic environment, people

  • Author: Sue Libenson
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published January 24, 2016

We've all heard the expression "killing two birds with one stone." For those of us who live in the Arctic, this is a way of life. We have long traditions of being highly effective and efficient to survive in extreme conditions. By necessity, we make every action count for several times its worth.

Today, the Arctic faces modern challenges. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Arctic seas are melting, the seasons are shifting, and changes to so many of our ways of life hang in the balance.

But even though most of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change come from beyond our Arctic borders, we in the region are in a special position to effectively slow or reverse these changes. In fact, we might need a new expression, "killing three birds with one stone."

One of climate change's most incredible transformations is the advent of shipping in Arctic waters. Seas that were virtually impassable in recent times are changing rapidly. The Arctic Ocean may be completely ice free in summers sometime this century. Nations are plotting new Arctic shipping lanes to expand industrial activity and attract cargo shippers, tankers and cruise ships.

As nations race to gain advantage, there is an immediate need for rules to safeguard the region's incredibly fragile marine environment and the communities who depend on it.

Indigenous peoples across the Arctic continue to practice traditional ways of life closely connected to the waters they rely on for food.

The Arctic includes some of the world's most productive ocean ecosystems. Millions of seabirds, including some of the world's largest seabird colonies, and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals -- including most of the world's populations of several whales, seals and walrus -- migrate, breed and feed here. Some of the world's highest volume fisheries rely on incredibly productive Arctic waters.

For shippers, the Arctic remains remote, dangerous and severe. Storms routinely reach hurricane force, waters are ice-filled and poorly mapped, communication systems can easily fail, and substantive oil spill response or search and rescue can be thousands of miles and weeks away.

Arctic ship traffic will dramatically increase regional air emissions, including black carbon known to accelerate ice melt and climate change. Ships may disrupt local hunters and fishermen, as well as marine mammals.

But Arctic shipping's greatest threat is a catastrophic spill of heavy fuel oil.

Heavy fuel oil -- thicker and dirtier than lighter grades -- is both shipped as cargo and used as a transport fuel. Because it does not evaporate, heavy fuel oil in severe Arctic conditions would be virtually impossible to clean up. Because oil spill response is virtually nonexistent in much of the Arctic, cleanup efforts are greatly disabled. A spill in open waters where birds, fish and wildlife concentrate could lead to ecosystem collapse.

For these reasons, heavy fuel oil was banned in Antarctic waters in 2010. It should be kept out of Arctic waters too.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity for action at the beginning of February. The Arctic Council, now chaired by the United States, is meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss protection of the Arctic marine environment.

The Arctic Council identified heavy fuel oil as the primary threat associated with shipping as far back as 2009, but it remains unregulated. Mixed progress was made last year when the United Nations' International Maritime Organization approved the Polar Code, the first enforceable framework governing Arctic shipping, but failed to address heavy fuel oil.

In February, the Arctic Council will once again consider new documents regarding heavy fuel oil. But, there is no need for further information to take action. Extensive and persuasive evidence has already been sufficiently brought forward for our northern leaders to act.

Banning heavy fuel oil for ships in Arctic waters has a threefold benefit. It will reduce black carbon emissions where it really counts, potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the risk of a disastrous oil spill.

How often do you get to kill three birds with one stone?

It's an Arctic tradition to take actions that count on many fronts. Calling to ban heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters offers Arctic Council leaders a unique opportunity to both protect our northern environment and make significant, northern contributions to combating climate change.

Sue Libenson is senior Arctic policy officer for Pacific Environment, an international environmental group that has partnered with local and indigenous communities in Russia, China and the Alaska Arctic for more than two decades.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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