UN organization adopts Arctic heavy fuel oil ban

The United Nations International Maritime Organization has formally adopted a ban on heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, despite criticism that the regulations don’t go far enough. 

According to Reuters, the shipping agency’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee approved a ban on Arctic use and carriage of heavy fuel oil, or HFO, on Thursday. The ban will take effect after July 1, 2024. 

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


Groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Inuit Circumpolar Council have criticized the ban, saying exemptions mean it won’t effectively protect the Arctic. 

Under the new rules, some vessels – double-hulled ships and ships flying the flags of countries with Arctic coastlines that are signatories to an international convention on the prevention of shipping pollution – can keep using HFO until July 2029. Ships engaged in search and rescue operations or dedicated to oil spill preparedness and response are also exempt. 

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

According to 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. 

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


Heavy grade oils have been banned in ships traversing Antarctic waters since 2011. An HFO ban in protected areas of Svalbard, Norway came into effect between 2007 and 2010.

The Government of Canada has expressed support for the Arctic HFO ban and its phased-in approach, saying it will “help balance the environmental benefits with the economic realities of northern Indigenous and Inuit communities.” 

The Canadian government has said an HFO ban in the Arctic 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 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.