Kitikmeot ship

Heavy fuel oil used by more than one-third of ships in Canadian Arctic waters, study finds

When burned, the controversial fuel emits black carbon, leaving soot on the icy landscape and contributing substantially to climate change

During a span of eight years, 37 per cent of ships in the Canadian Arctic were run on heavy fuel oil, according to a new report

This research is the first in Canada to quantify the use of what’s considered to be the dirtiest type of fuel. 

Arctic countries and the International Maritime Organization have been discussing a ban on heavy fuel oil for several years and plan to start phasing out its use in 2024 due to concerns about spill risks and a type of emission known as “black carbon.” 

“The Canadian government has been interested in looking at a ban in more detail, but we don’t have the data available for people to think about what has been happening in the Canadian Arctic,” said Nicolien Van Luijk, the lead author of the study out of University of Ottawa.

“As researchers, we’re trying to provide that data.”

The problem with heavy fuel oil

Heavy fuel oil, which is widely used in the commercial shipping industry due to its availability and low cost, is a byproduct of the crude oil refining process. It’s thicker and less refined than other types of fuel such as diesel. When burned, heavy fuel oil emits more black carbon than any other fuel used in shipping. 

Black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide in driving climate change and its impacts are exponentially worse in Arctic regions, where the black soot settles on white landscapes, absorbing rather than reflecting sunlight.

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Heavy fuel oil is also particularly difficult to clean up because of its viscosity, the report says. Unlike some fuels, which remain at the water’s surface, heavy fuel oil can spread throughout the water column. 

“There are other alternatives that have the potential to produce less air pollution and decrease the potential for damaging oil spills, such as liquid natural gas, battery-powered or solar-powered ships, and other types of cleaner fuels,” the report notes.

Distillate fuel, such as marine diesel oil, the report says, is the most feasible alternative for ship operators in the Arctic at the moment, considering its availability and reasonable cost.

Study looks at fuel type and high-traffic waters 

For the study, researchers categorized all ships that travelled through Canadian Arctic waters between 2010 and 2018 by fuel type. Of a total 601 vessels, roughly 220 ran on heavy fuel oil, most of which were general cargo ships, bulk carriers and tankers. The rest of the ships, which included government-owned icebreakers and smaller pleasure crafts, used distillate fuels.

To determine whether ships were using heavy fuel oil, researchers parsed through policy reports and the websites of marine organizations and shipping companies. They contacted companies directly when information wasn’t accessible. It took researchers several months just to get a clear picture of how often heavy fuel oil is used in the Arctic.

“The issue is that no one has the correct data,” Van Luijk said.

Of the 220 vessels that ran on heavy fuel oil, 155 were confirmed and 65 were estimated. There was no documentation or contact information for some foreign-owned companies, she said, so the team looked at ships of a similar type that had been confirmed to make an estimation. 

Researchers looked not only at fuel types for specific vessels, but also at the total distance ships travelled. Ships that use heavy fuel oil clocked a significant share of the nautical miles, comprising 45 per cent of the total distance travelled by all vessels, the report says. And the majority of this travel was in particular areas such as the Hudson Strait, between Nunavik in northern Quebec and Baffin Island, Nunavut and in Baffin Bay, nearby the community of Pond Inlet.

The last locale is of particular concern, near the eastern entrance to Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. It’s an important habitat for polar bears, narwhals, bowhead and beluga whales, the report says. It’s also a culturally significant area for local Inuit.

The politics of a ban

The International Maritime Organization, which regulates global shipping, proposed consideration of a ban on heavy fuel oil use and carriage in the Arctic in 2018, citing “widely accepted understanding that (heavy fuel oil) presents a threat to the marine environment,” the University of Ottawa report says. In February, the organization passed a draft regulation to start phasing out the fuel in 2024. Transport Canada announced it would support the ban in February — a late holdout among Arctic nations.

Some organizations are calling out the proposed ban, saying it doesn’t go far enough.

Last month, in response to the draft regulations, the Nunavut Marine Council sent a letter to Transport Canada taking aim at exemptions for vessels that could lead to companies circumventing the ban long after 2024.

For example, ships with a double hull, which lessen the threat of a spill, are exempt from the ban until 2029.

This means nearly a decade will have elapsed between the time the draft regulations were proposed to when they’ll actually be fully implemented.

“What the council is recommending is for that 10-year timeline for the application of the ban to be reconsidered,” Colleen Parker, a policy advisor for the Nunavut Marine Council, told The Narwhal. 

In its letter, the Nunavut Marine Council also asked that the federal government consider the potential economic impacts of the ban on Arctic communities. The vast majority of communities in the Arctic can only be accessed by sea or air, so ships are a lifeline for food, fuel and other supplies. Implementing a ban on the cheapest fuel source available could cause prices for those shipped goods to increase in communities already saddled with high costs of living and food security issues.

The council advised the government to develop measures to offset these impacts, while supporting the ban.

Last December, Transport Canada released a report that delved into possible price inflation caused by banning heavy fuel oil. It estimated the cost of goods brought in to communities by ship could increase by upward of 1.9 per cent. This could translate to an increase of between $248 and $679 per household on an annual basis.  

“Any increase in the cost of goods in the region could have major implications for the well-being of Canadian Arctic communities considering the already high costs and the existing disparities in the region related to health and income inequality compared with Canadian averages,” it says.

Researcher Van Luijk said before determining how to address impacts of a ban on heavy fuel oil, we first need to know the full extent of its use in Canadian Arctic waters. This was the mandate of the University of Ottawa study.

“It provides a point that we can work from,” she said. “It’s information that I would argue we need before we can really discuss how the impacts might be happening.”

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