Heavy fuel oil must be banned from the Canadian Arctic

It is time to put in place stringent environmental protection standards before the amount of maritime traffic increases significantly.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean. 'The momentum to ban [heavy fuel oil] in the Arctic is building and Canada should take advantage of that,' writes Retired Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Pierre Leblanc.
Photograph courtesy of Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard

PUBLISHED :Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 11:23 AM

Over the last decades, Canada has taken successive actions to monitor and minimize the impact of human activities on our environment. For the Canadian Arctic, one of the key actions was the passing of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) in 1985. Another has been making it compulsory for ships weighing 300 tonnes or more to report to the Coast Guard Arctic Maritime Management System, named NODREG, before entering the Arctic Archipelago which took effect in 2010.

More recently, the coming into force in January 2017 of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) polar code was another major step in the right direction. It will reduce the possibility of a marine accident that could have a major impact on the environment.

Given the increase in maritime traffic in the Canadian Arctic and, as we become more aware of the pollution and production of black carbon generated by maritime shipping, it is timely that Canada addresses two important environmental issues:

  • The inclusion of the Arctic Archipelago in the North American Emission Control Area
  • The ban of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone

Canada has in place two “emission control areas,” one for each of the western and eastern coasts which came into force in 2012. Canada collaborated with the United States and the IMO to put those in place.


In March 2010, the IMO officially designated waters off North American coasts as an area in which stringent international emission standards will apply to ships. The first-phase fuel sulfur standard began in 2012, the second phase began in 2015, and stringent nitrogen oxides engine standards began last year.

Including the Arctic Archipelago in the North American Emission Control Area is the right thing to do. These emission control areas were put in place in large part to improve the quality of the air for the inhabitants of the coastal areas and the interior. The inhabitants of the Arctic deserve the same care. One can argue that given the fragility of the Arctic environment and its short vertical food chain it would be even more important to protect that area.

On the matter of banning the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, it is time to put in place stringent environmental protection standards before the amount of maritime traffic increases significantly. Ship pollution is poorly regulated. It is reported that the 15 largest ships in the world emit as much nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide as the world’s 760 million cars. The fast disappearance of sea ice will soon allow for the use of the Northwest Passage as a shorter route between Europe and Asia. The transit of the Northwest Passage by Chinese research icebreaker Snow Dragon this summer was reported in the Chinese media as the opening of a new trade route.

In July 2017, the Canadian IMO delegation made a submission to review the issue of HFO with the aim of banning it from the Arctic. It is already banned from the Antarctic since August 2011. If the IMO does not agree to a HFO ban in the Arctic, Canada should consider acting unilaterally to protect our national interests as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It could easily be included in the regulations of the AWPPA and integrated more specifically in the federal government’s Oceans Protection Plan, which commits to the “preservation…marine ecosystems vulnerable to increased marine shipping and development.” The review of the regulations could also consider mandating the use of environment friendly or biodegradable lubricants in ships operating in the Arctic.


The momentum to ban HFO in the Arctic is building and Canada should take advantage of that. In March 2017, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the Arctic that included a call on the IMO to put ban HFO in the Arctic by 2020. At its annual meeting in 2016, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators reconfirmed their support for an international ban on HFO for all ship traffic in the Arctic.

The federal government should consider financial incentives or other forms of support to accelerate the rate of conversion to cleaner fuel sources including renewable sources of energy. Some companies are already developing ships powered in whole or in part by the use of solar and wind power. Solar would be interesting given 24 hours a day of daylight during a good portion of the Arctic shipping season.

It is recognized that requiring vessels to use cleaner fuel will add important costs especially if the engines need to be retrofitted to be able to use such fuels. The marine industry could be provided with a transition period to minimize costs. The oil and gas industry is well aware of the shift towards cleaner fuels and has been developing potential solutions such as liquid natural gas. Those costs will be passed on to consumers to some degree but that would be a small price to pay for a cleaner and safer environment.

Colonel (Ret.) Pierre Leblanc commanded the Canadian Forces Northern Area, composed of Canada’s three northern territories, from 1995 until his retirement in 2000. He now serves as president of Arctic Security Consultants.



The Hill Times