Future of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters challenged

A group of nongovernmental organizations recently sent a letter to the US Department of State calling for a ban on heavy fuel oil, or HFO, in Arctic waters. HFO is hard to cleanup, but the widespread use of HFO throughout the Arctic makes the ban an especially hard sell.

In the Arctic, HFO is used in both big and small ways. It fuels large cargo ships and helps heat and power homes in Canada and Russia. It’s banned in Antarctic waters and in northern Europe, partly due to its dirty emissions. It’s also hard to clean up.

“It’s just a thick and really goopy fuel,” Andrew Hartsig said.

Hartsig is the Director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program, based in Anchorage. He says unlike lighter fuels such as diesel that evaporate and dissolve, HFO can cling to sea ice and sink to the seafloor. That’s because the fuel thickens in colder temperatures, turning it into a tar-like substance. Hartsig is one of 15 authors of a letter calling for a ban on the use of HFO to power ships in the Arctic.

“The purpose of it was really to focus on this issue of heavy fuel oil as a hazard that’s still unresolved, especially with respect to the Arctic region,” Hartsig said.

In late November, a Russian tanker ran aground in the North Pacific, an accident that prompted the letter. Almost half of the 200,000 gallons of fuel in the tanker were HFO. The accident happened less than 500 feet from a port that has cleanup equipment, but response efforts stalled for days due to stormy weather. The cleanup took over a month. So where is the tanker now?

“The latest news that I’ve seen from our partners show that it’s still there.” says Elena Agarkova, a Senior Shipping Officer at the Worldwide Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program.

She says adequate technology to fully cleanup HFO doesn’t exist.

“In the Arctic waters the chances of complete clean up are zero to nil given the fact that there are so many variables that would go into oil recovery,” Agarkova said.

HFO is cheaper than diesel. That’s why, Agarkova, says the economic incentive needs to be there for countries like Russia and Canada will agree to a ban.

The letter was addressed to David Balton, a Senior Arctic Official for the Arctic Council with the U.S. State Department. Balton issued a statement in response saying the letter is now being circulated to Arctic states. In response, Balton said an Arctic Council working group is studying options for minimizing the risks related to the use of HFO.