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Heavy fuel oil and the Arctic — are they compatible?

Whether carried or burned, heavy fuel oil is a particular threat in Arctic waters

IN March 2017, Arctic sea ice hit a new record — the lowest amount of winter ice since satellite records began 38 years ago.

As Arctic waters open up, most likely due to human use of fossil fuels, vessels powered by heavy fuel oil are likely to divert to Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times. This will mean more burning of marine fuels and black carbon emissions, accelerating further melting. More open water means further absorption of the sun's warmth and heating of the Arctic Ocean — a vicious cycle. 

As a former navigator I have sailed on ships in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. In 1979 I was second officer on the first ship to east Greenland that season and we arrived at Angmagssalik around July 1 after spending a day navigating very heavy multi-year ice. Later that year, I was in the Thule (Qaanaaq) district in northwest Greenland, which opened up for ship traffic only in early August.

Much later, around 1998, I got involved in the International Maritime Organization’s work on drafting the Polar Code. The first draft was brought to the IMO by Canada, but it needed quite some work in order to appear as an IMO document. The first version was adopted in 2002 as a set of voluntary guidelines, whereas the present version, which entered into force on January 1 this year, is a mandatory IMO Code under both the Solas and the Marpol Conventions.

Looking again at this year’s ice chart, it appears that the areas I visited back in 1979 will be open to ship traffic much earlier and the navigable window will be much longer.

Is that good? Well, from a purely navigational view, an ice-free Arctic for half of the year would be convenient. Many tonne-miles would be saved and thereby less fuel burned on a global basis, which arguably could have a mitigating effect of shipping on climate change and even delay the 2°C temperature increase scenario by several weeks. But overall, is this significantly beneficial compared with the negative side-effects of global warming, and the potential impacts of burning heavy fuel oil in the Arctic?

Rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice and the Arctic glaciers is predicted to have negative global effects. Melting of glaciers will result in rising sea levels globally, threatening the existence of many island states. Many large cities will also need to invest in expensive climate change mitigation enterprises, such as increasing the height and extent of dykes and barriers. Two obvious examples are New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and New York/New Jersey during hurricane Sandy. Rising sea levels and a likely increase in frequency and violence of hurricanes is a toxic mix for low-lying cities and countries.

Massive melting of ice in the Arctic might also, according to some scientists, force the Gulf Stream to take a more southerly course, which will result in a much colder northern Europe. So even in a global warming scenario, there might be regions that will experience colder weather and climate.

HFO is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships around the world. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO, over half by vessels flagged to non-Arctic states — countries that have little if any connection to the Arctic. Combined with an increase in Arctic state-flagged vessels targeting previously non-accessible resources, this will greatly increase the risk of an HFO spill.

If HFO is spilled in the colder waters of the Arctic, it breaks down even more slowly than in warmer waters, with long-term devastating effects on both livelihoods and ecosystems.

HFO is a larger source of high emissions of harmful air pollutants — such as sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, including black carbon — than alternative fuels such as distillate and liquid natural gas. When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is five times more than when emitted at lower latitudes, such as in the tropics.

Mitigating risks

Canada along with Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and the US have now proposed, in time for next week’s 71st meeting of the IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee, that work begins on mitigating the risks of use and carriage of HFO as fuel by ships in the Arctic. The European Parliament has broadly supported this move by adopting its resolution calling for a ban on the use of HFO in Arctic waters. 

Meanwhile, Danish Shipping (the association of Danish shipowners) and Arctic expedition cruise operator Hurtigruten, among others, have called for regulation banning the use of HFO in the Arctic.

The submission from Canada et al is a request for a new output from the IMO, hence there are no concrete text amendments proposed. However, it is already embedded in Marpol Annex I that carriage of Heavy Grade Oil in the Antarctic, ie south of latitude 60 S, is prohibited. Heavy Grade Oil is defined as oil with a density greater than 900 kg/m3 or a viscosity (at 50°C) of 180 centistokes (cSt) or above. Thus, drafting of the relevant text to introduce a similar ban in the Arctic would be the least of the challenges.

It is noteworthy that the proposal will cover only the carriage of HFO as fuel, not as cargo. There are huge known oil reserves in the region, not least in the Russian Arctic, and a possible ban of transporting this at sea would presently not be feasible. Oil transported as cargo will most certainly be carried on board double-hulled tankers, whereas the requirement to double side skin protection of fuel tanks has taken effect only for ships built after January 1 this year.

It is also interesting that Canada et al in the submission do not use the damaging effects of Black Carbon as part of the rationale for a ban.

In October 2016, the IMO at MEPC 70 decided that from January 1, 2020, all ships operating outside Emission Control Areas must not burn fuel oil with a sulphur content above 0.5% (by mass). When that rule was adopted in 2008, it was believed that such future fuel oil would be distillate, either marine gas oil or marine diesel oil.

One could then suggest that the problem of carriage of HFO in the Arctic would resolve itself by 2020.

Well, if only the world were so simple.

In connection with the 0.1% sulphur limit in ECAs in 2015, the world saw a number of new fuels that did not fall under the traditional definition of distillate fuel. It is expected that the 2020 global cap of 0.5% sulphur limit will see the introduction of many new fuels. Some of these are expected to be based on de-sulphurised HFO derived from sweet crude, others might be blends of HFO with low-sulphur products. It could even be new oil products that the world has not yet seen.

It should thus be evident that a carriage ban only on HFO as fuel might not solve the potential problem. Whether the definitions of Heavy Grade Oil, as used for the Antarctic, will suffice is not for this author to judge. It would be recommended to involve refinery and bunker experts to ensure a robust definition of a fuel ban in the Arctic.

At this July's MEPC meeting, IMO member states must not only support the action proposed by Canada and others to mitigate the risks of HFO use in the Arctic, they must commit to any measures taken by the IMO to reduce these risks — including a ban.


Niels Bjørn Mortensen is master mariner & naval architect. A former consultant at BIMCO and director at Maersk Maritime Technology, he is now an independent consultant.

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