International Maritime Organization Consideration of a Proposed Ban on Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

Location: Canada’s Arctic

Summary of Issue/Background

  • A proposal to ban heavy fuel oil (HFO) for ships operating in the Arctic will be considered at a series of meetings at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2020, to address concerns regarding the environmental risks of a potential spill.
  • The IMO, a specialized agency of the United Nations composed of 174 member states, is the global standard-setting authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping.
  • The IMO is a consensus based organization (although sometime resorts to formal voting on some contention decisions). IMO rules directly apply to foreign shipping, and Canada generally reflects them in Canadian rules for domestic shipping (i.e. marine transits between two Canadian ports).
  • HFO is a generic term to describe lower-cost fuels with a high viscosity and density. It is the main fuel used in international shipping today, although its use is expected to decline soon, as a result of new IMO rules limiting sulphur emissions from fuel combustion on vessels, starting January 1, 2020. Since HFO is high in sulphur, vessels will need to install costly emission scrubbers to continue to use HFO; numbers from industry indicate some vessels will switch to higher-cost distilled fuels like diesel.
  • In Canada’s Arctic, HFO is commonly used as fuel by certain vessels engaged in community resupply, bulk carriers serving mining projects, and by some larger fishing vessels.
  • As highlighted in Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, the Arctic is a complex and fragile environment for which its protection is in the interest of all Arctic states.
  • The consequences of a potential spill of any fuel is greater in the Arctic due to the structural challenges to spill response in the region:
    • Due to the limited amount of marine traffic and infrastructure, the capacity for rapid spill response is limited.
    • The cold and ice in the marine environment in the Arctic adds to the response challenges.
  • A number of Canadian organizations (including some Indigenous and Inuit groups) have voiced support for the ban proposed at the IMO, to strengthen environmental protection in the Arctic.
  • A ban on HFO could result in socio-economic impacts on Arctic communities, including many Indigenous and Inuit communities in Canada, through higher costs for food, fuel and other goods, as a result of higher marine shipping costs; as most depend vitally on marine shipping for community resupply needs.
  • A ban on HFO could also increase shipping costs for mining operations in the Canadian Arctic and grain export through the Port of Churchill.
  • Should HFO be banned in the Arctic, vessels would shift to use other fuels, such as marine diesel, which still have some spill risks. This underscores the importance of continuing current efforts under the Oceans Protection Plan to ensure world-class marine safety with a focus on prevention, and then response, regardless of the fuel used.
  • Canada is currently conducting an impact assessment and consultations on how a proposed HFO ban would strengthen environmental protection and how it would impact northern communities and industries. This will inform Canada’s engagement with IMO Member States, Indigenous and Inuit communities, and other stakeholders on this proposal.