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Postcard from London: Charting a Cleaner Course for the Arctic

By Danielle Fest Grabiel, EIA Senior Policy Anlayst and Daniel Hubbell, Assistant Policy Analyst

Earth Day is a chance to celebrate the wonder of the natural world, which on the surface makes it a little ironic that EIA’s Wildlife Team is sending this blog postcard from the back of a London conference room with no windows, and not, say, on a scenic hike or attending a beach cleanup. But the decisions that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) makes this week may influence the future of vulnerable regions like the Arctic; and we can think of no better way to spend Earth Day than by working to protect regions like the Arctic and species such as the beluga whale that call it home.

As the Arctic continues to warm, it is becoming increasingly vulnerable to serious ecological harm. Of particular concern are the impacts associated with increased Arctic shipping. Travelling along the Northern Sea Route from Rotterdam to Yokohama is 30 percent faster than passing through the Suez Canal. By 2025, shipping in and out of the Bering Strait is expected to increase by 150 to 600 percent.

For the beluga whales of the region, more commercial traffic will make the ocean a noisier place. Ocean noise can mask or drown out the vocalizations the whales make to communicate with each other and locate prey. Even at distances of more than 30 miles, studies have found that belugas will flee from ice breakers and other loud vessels. Invasive species, either carried knowingly, or brought accidentally in the ballast water of ships, could upend the fragile ecosystem or compete with species the belugas prey upon. The largest risk by far is posed by a spill of heavy fuel oil (HFO).

HFO is, quite literally, the bottom of the barrel when it comes to oil. After lighter oil products like diesel or jet fuel have been separated out, HFO is the sludgy, viscous substance that remains. Due to this heavy nature, HFO has to be heated and pumped before it can be burned. As a result, the majority of HFO is burned by large shipping vessels passing through the region as opposed to local traffic like fishing vessels. HFO is as much as 50 times more toxic than “lighter” crude oil and produces harmful pollutants like sulfur and nitrogen oxides that can seriously damage human health. It also creates black carbon, which is a significant contributor to climate change.

When HFO spills, it does not dissipate in marine waters. While lighter oil can eventually break down after three days, one study found that 90 percent of HFO was still present in a spill area after 20 days. The challenges inherent with cleaning up an oil spill are also compounded by the Arctic’s harsh conditions and inadequate oil spill response facilities. If an HFO spill happened, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to clean up. For species like the beluga whale that migrate every summer to the same estuaries, an HFO spill in their core habitat would devastate the health of an entire population for years.

Even as the rest of maritime traffic has become safer, the Arctic has become more dangerous. In 2005 there were three shipping casualties in the entire Arctic; in 2015 there were over seventy. Without further action, it is highly likely that the Arctic will experience the kind of spill that devastated Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef and spilled 10-11 million gallons of HFO in 1989. It is still possible to find oil in the Sound today. The most effective way to prevent a similar spill in the Arctic is to phase out HFO use in the Arctic.

As the intergovernmental body responsible for shipping, the IMO’s member states can move to reduce the risk of HFO to the Arctic. As part of a coalition, EIA’s Wildlife Team is calling on IMO member nations to ban the use of HFO in Arctic shipping. We are optimistic that by next Earth Day we will be celebrating the end of HFO use in the Arctic.

Click Here to view an infographic on HFO.

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