First-mover of last resort

Foreground | Shippers are willing to stop using heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, but no-one wants to be first 

Kevin McGwin

This week, in London, work sorting out the details of a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic gets under way.

In October, the MEPC, the International Maritime Organisation committee working with environmental issues, agreed that a ban on heavy fuel oil should be implemented, as it already has been in the Antarctic, and in select parts of the North. The next step, to begin this week, will be for a sub-committee to identify what the impacts of a ban might be, and how they might be addressed.

Depending on how fast it works, the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response could have something to hand over at the end of the current week-long annual session, thought delegates suggest it will take at least two, in part due to foot dragging by countries who fear a conversion will cost them financially, or their governments electorally. Either way, the earliest such a measure can be adopted is 2020, due to the IMO’s rules of procedure.

Heavy fuel oil, say those working to eliminate it, poses two different threats in the Arctic. First, when it burns, it releases black carbon, or soot. In addition to being a health hazard, if the soot settles on snow or ice, it makes it less reflective, speeding the rate at which it melts.

Another concern is the damage that an oil spill would do. Even in temperate climates heavy fuel oil is difficult to clean. As its name suggests, it is a viscous fluid that is difficult to remove from objects it comes into contact with. In the water, it breaks down slowly. The cold air and water temperatures in the Arctic would, say conservationists, make a clean-up impossible.

Shippers have already said they can see the value of changing to cleaner fuels, but, given their higher costs, they are hesitant to burden themselves unless others do the same. When it comes to heavy fuel oil, the motto is all for none, but none before all.

When: 18-22 Feb
Where: London, UK
WWW: Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response

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