Canada will support a ban on the use of heavy fuel oil by ships plying Arctic waters at the upcoming meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London, Transport Canada officials announced during a teleconference call Wednesday, according to people who participated in the call.
Transport Canada officials announced their commitment to a heavy fuel oil (HFO) ban “with certain caveats” during a stakeholder engagement call ahead of the 7th Session of the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR7) that begins on Monday, according to at least two participants of the call.
A Transport Canada spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the report.
“The Government of Canada will publicly announce its position on this issue early next week, once Canada has declared its official position to the international membership of the IMO at the Sub-Committee meeting,” Transport Canada officials told Radio Canada International in an email.
This would make Canada the seventh Arctic country to support the proposal that has been championed by environmental groups and the Inuit Circumpolar Council since at least 2015 but has faced stiff opposition from maritime shipping companies involved in sealift operations in the Canadian Arctic.
Andrew Dumbrille, a World Wildlife Fund – Canada specialist in sustainable shipping, said Russia remains the only holdout going into the meeting in London.
The proposed ban on heavy fuel oil will apply to all ships operating north of 60˚N latitude off the coasts of Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, as well as parts of Nunavik in Northern Quebec.
Internationally it will include waters off Alaska’s coast north of 60˚N latitude, almost the entire Arctic coast of Russia with the exception of waters off Kola Peninsula, Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, and entire Greenland.
Environmental benefit but higher cost
Heavy fuel oil (HFO), a thick viscous residual fuel that produces high amounts of soot, particulate matter and black carbon, is already banned in ships operating in Antarctic waters since 2011.
The Canadian submission to PPR7 obtained by Radio Canada International says banning HFO in the Arctic would bring environmental benefits but would come at a higher economic cost for northern communities dependent on the marine resupply from southern Canada.
The announcement by Transport Canada officials that they plan to back the HFO ban drew the ire of Suzanne Paquin, president and CEO of NEAS Group Inc., a Montreal-based shipping company that serves communities in Canada’s Eastern Arctic.
“We are absolutely surprised, disappointed with the government for this,” said Paquin, who was on Wednesday’s teleconference call with Transport Canada officials. “It’s unbelievable that they would think that an HFO ban is a priority in the Arctic… It shows how out of touch the federal government is with the Arctic.”
Paquin said, the company, which is jointly owned by Makivik Corporation, Nunavik’s Inuit Birthright Corporation, and Transport Nanuk Inc., provides sealift operations to all of the Inuit communities in Nunavut and Nunavik.
“Safety is our first concern and we feel that it’s irresponsible to mandate an untested fuel switch,” Paquin said in a phone interview. “This is a huge concern of ours.”
The ships owned and operated by NEAS run on HFO, she said.
“Not running on HFO will have an impact, especially given cold climate weather, which can have an impact on these engines and that’s what has not been tested,” Paquin said.
Paquin said in more than 30 years of her professional experience related to maritime shipping she has never heard of an HFO spill in the Arctic and accused Ottawa to caving in to a “campaign of misinformation and misguidedness.”
“We support good governance, including listening to the local voices and, of course, we support Canadian testing, research and science before taking any kind of decision,” Paquin said.
“This has not been the case. There is absolutely no Canadian data. The Canadian Arctic suffers from a huge data deficit in all domains, including information related to the environment and even climate change.”
‘A pathway for cleaner shipping in the Arctic’
Environmental groups, on the other hand, applauded the government’s decision.
“Transport Canada’s announcement to support an HFO ban in the Arctic is very encouraging news ahead of the tough negotiations at the IMO next week,” said Dumbrille.
“Canada is showing vision and leadership in creating a pathway for cleaner shipping in the Arctic and globally.”
Transport Canada should be commended for working towards protecting the marine environment and ensuring communities have access to a clean ocean for food and culture, Dumbrille said.
HFO spills as a result of an accident present a big threat to the Arctic environment, according to experts.
HFO has a high viscosity and density and does not evaporate quickly, and can stay in the environment for a long time, according to the Canadian submission.
“The persistence of HFO means that there is a higher likelihood of physical fouling and ingestion of oil by marine wildlife,” the report says. “An HFO spill would also present possible shoreline contamination, threatening wildlife and traditional activities of Indigenous and Inuit populations, who may become exposed to the contamination directly or indirectly.”
Clean-up efforts will be particularly challenging given the cold environment, the enormous distances and the lack of infrastructure and resources to mount a quick response, the report notes.
‘It’s a trade-off’
Not all experts agree that substituting HFO by marine diesel would lead to less environmental damage in case of a spill.
Merv Fingas, an Edmonton-based spill response expert who wrote a study for Transport Canada on this issue, said efforts by environmental groups to ban HFO in favour of lighter distillate fuels are “misguided” because these fuels have water-soluble components that are toxic to aquatic organisms.
“It’s a trade-off, if you take a look at the total environment, HFO is probably less harmful than diesel,” Fingas told Radio Canada International. “The reason that HFO has got a bad name is because it’s messy, ugly and tars up the shoreline, but it’s very much less aquatically toxic.”
Canada should follow Finland’s example and move away from both HFO and diesel towards other fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) that don’t present the same risks in case of a spill, Fingas said.
Transport Canada does not agree with Fingas’s view that marine diesel presents a higher risk in case of a marine spill.
“Although other, lighter fuels (e.g., marine diesel) that could replace HFO have higher toxicity to marine life, they evaporate more quickly and are less persistent in the environment,” Canada’s submission to the world maritime body says. “Therefore, HFO presents a greater longer-term ecological risk compared to other marine fuels that are available, such as marine diesel and other distillate fuels.”
Fingas counters that the process of evaporation of diesel fuel simply transfers pollution from the water column into the air.
“Then you have to breath it,” Fingas said.
Paquin said instead of banning HFO the federal government should be investing in spill response measures and infrastructure in remote Arctic communities.
“What I know is that without direct investments in local spill response and mitigation measures, communities will be left with an increased threat from a potential spill of more toxic fuel,” Paquin said.
Marine diesel fuels are up to 100 times more toxic than HFO fuels they will replace, she said.
Increased costs of community resupply
The increased cost of fuel due the HFO ban could result in additional price increases for community resupply products in the range of 0.7 per cent to 1.9 per cent, Canada’s submission to the IMO says.
The potential financial impact on northern communities could be further compounded by the introduction of new measures to reduce air pollution generated by the maritime shipping industry worldwide that came into effect as of Jan. 1, 2020.
The IMO has introduced the 0.5 per cent sulphur content cap in marine fuel with the aim of reducing harmful sulphur emissions from ships by 77 per cent by 2025.
This means that as of Jan. 1 the shipping industry can no longer use heavy fuel oil, which was the cheapest fuel available and normally contained up to 3.5 per cent of sulphur, said Dumbrille.
The shipping industry estimates that this could translate into an increase in the cost of the sealift of up to $700 per household for remote Arctic communities that get the majority of their goods during the short summer marine resupply season.
The HFO ban would add another $700 dollars to this bill and will disproportionally affect Inuit communities that have much lower incomes and can ill-afford the price increase, the industry claims.
“It means that Canadians living in remote communities are being called upon to pay significantly more for no measurable benefit,” Paquin said.
Nunavut officials did not respond to RCI’s request for comment in time for publication.
Officials at Qikiqtani Inuit Association, a regional Inuit association that represents 13 Inuit communities in eastern Nunavut, also were not available for comment.
William Tagoona of Makivik Corporation, which represents Inuit communities in Nunavik, said they are not ready to comment on the issue “until more information is made available.”
“We just haven’t heard much discussion on this at this time,” Tagoona said in an email. “We are always interested in positions that will lower the cost of living in the Arctic which at this time is not showing signs of becoming more affordable.”
Dumbrille said the commitment to banning HFO from Transport Canada is going to provide certainty for all involved and prepare operators and communities for the eventual ban.
“Everyone wants a ban implemented that doesn’t burden communities with higher costs — that’s a given,” Dumbrille said. “What’s needed now is for the federal government to step up and commit to managing the transition by ensuring any potential costs associated with banning HFO don’t impact people in the north.”