What will a ban on heavy fuel oil mean for Canada’s Arctic?

Last modified: December 1, 2020 at 10:04am

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has approved a ban on heavy fuel oil, abbreviated to HFO, in Arctic waters.

Some environmental and Indigenous organizations say the ban doesn’t go far enough, while others have expressed concern about the economic impacts on remote communities.

On November 20, the United Nations agency that regulates shipping passed new regulations banning HFO in the Arctic after July 1, 2024.


The ban aims to reduce the risk of an HFO spill as the number of ships in the Arctic increases. 

Under the new rules, however, double-hulled ships are allowed to keep using HFO in the Arctic until July 2029. Countries with Arctic coastlines can also allow ships sailing with their flags to use HFO until that time. 

Andrew Dumbrille, a senior specialist on sustainable shipping at World Wildlife Fund Canada, said that five-year extension will allow “a decade more of the world’s most polluting and hazardous fuel being moved in the Arctic.” 

Heavy fuel oil is used to power large marine vessels because it’s cheap and readily available. 

According to Dumbrille and the Canadian government, HFO is thick, dense, and does not evaporate quickly – meaning spills are difficult to clean up and can stay in the environment for a long time.


At freezing temperatures, HFO is more likely to be trapped in the ice than other fuels. 

“It can move in soil, and damage shorelines, and interfere with fisheries and local communities much more than other fuel,” Dumbrille said.

When HFO is burned, it emits black carbon, a particulate that some studies suggest is contributing to the accelerated melting of Arctic sea ice.

Given all of those factors, Dumbrille said, “This needs to be banned yesterday – immediately.”


Ban ‘would eliminate little HFO use’

Dumbrille argues ships can easily transition to diesel fuel, which – while also a fossil fuel – transmits less black carbon and is less damaging if spilled. He said ships that use HFO can switch to diesel without retrofitting.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which represents approximately 180,000 Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, also expressed disappointment in the HFO ban.

While the organization did not respond to Cabin Radio’s requests for comment, Lisa Koperqualuk, vice-president of ICC Canada, recently told Radio-Canada the regulations won’t effectively protect the Arctic from HFO. 

A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation – an environment policy non-profit – suggested the ban, had it been in place in 2019, would have eliminated only 16 percent of Arctic HFO use.

The Clean Arctic Alliance held a webinar on the proposed heavy fuel oil ban, which it argues will not protect the Arctic.

Dumbrille said he’s hopeful that the Canadian government will be more stringent when it comes to banning HFO in the Arctic. 

“Ships really have to get to a renewable or decarbonization future. The first step is getting off the world’s dirtiest, most polluting fuel,” he said.

“By switching away from heavy fuel oil, you’re not only protecting wildlife and communities from the potential impacts of a spill, but you’re also reducing climate change.” 

Increased costs

There have been concerns about the HFO ban’s potential financial impact on northern communities that rely on barges for resupply.

The Canadian government has said an HFO ban will mean higher shipping costs, which could lead to higher prices for consumers. Ottawa estimates, for example, that the ban could result in a $248 to $679 increase in annual expenditures for Nunavut households.

The federal government says that could impact food security and the mining sector, lead to increased costs for territorial governments, and push electricity rates higher.

A representative from Transport Canada told Cabin Radio a phased-in approach to an HFO ban will allow time for fuel markets to stabilize, for the marine shipping industry to adapt, and to minimize impacts to northern Indigenous communities. 

“Canada continues to work with International Maritime Organization member states to find ways to help balance the environmental benefits of the heavy fuel oil ban with the socio-economic realities of northern, Indigenous, and Inuit communities,” a statement from the department read.

“The Government of Canada is well aware of the economic realities of these communities, and therefore continues to work and help them to find ways to adapt to any changes.”

One third of ships use HFO in Canadian Arctic

A University of Ottawa study found that between 2010 and 2018, approximately 37 percent of ships in Canadian Arctic waters used HFO. Nearly all were general cargo, bulk carrier, and tanker ships.

The majority of HFO use occurred in specific areas like Baffin Bay, near Pond Inlet, and the Hudson Strait, the study says.

A spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure said the territory’s Marine Transportation Services, which delivers cargo to communities by barge, does not use heavy fuel oil.

Nunavut Sealink and Supply Inc (NSSI), and Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping (NEAS), the two main resuppliers in the Canadian Arctic, did not return Cabin Radio’s request for comment on the HFO ban. 

A representative from NEAS said in October 2017 that an HFO ban could increase the cost of sealift by $1 million in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region, Nunatsiaq News reported. A representative from NNSI told the newspaper in 2017 it would not absorb the full costs of a transition away from HFO. 

Dumbrille said if the HFO ban does increase costs, and those costs are passed on to communities, the federal government should provide funding to help.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to move the shipping industry to greener and renewable sources of fuel, and it can be the responsibility of the federal government to manage that transition,” he said.

The Nunavut Marine Council wrote a letter to Transport Canada in May, urging the government to commit to measures to “offset the adverse economic implications” of the HFO ban. 

The next session of the IMO’s marine environmental protection committee is scheduled for June 2021, when the committee is expected to formally adopt the measures in the HFO ban.

Correction: December 1, 2020. 10:01 MT. This article initially stated that a study found nearly half of ships using HFO in Canadian Arctic waters between 2010 and 2018 were general cargo, bulk carrier, and tanker ships. In fact the study found nearly all of those ships were general cargo, bulk carrier, and tanker ships.