The ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic will come into force from July 2024: a great deal, but is it enough?

July 1, 2024 will be an important day for maritime logistics in the Arctic, since from that day on, ships transiting Arctic waters will be prohibited from transferring heavy fuel oil (HFO).

This is undoubtedly a great step.





Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is the residual fuel left after refining petroleum, generally of low quality and viscosity, making it suitable only for use in ships due to its unsuitability for other modes of transport.

HFO is often preferred by the shipping industry because it is a more economical option compared to other fuels.

HFO, being dense and viscous, contains toxic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals.






In the cold Arctic environment, these pollutants degrade much more slowly, prolonging their harmful impact on marine life and ecosystems.

Oil can sink into sediments, where it persists for decades, continually releasing toxins into the environment and affecting the entire food chain.

As the Arctic climate warms rapidly, these spills also contribute to environmental changes by contaminating the ice and accelerating melting processes.


Additionally, the region’s remote and harsh conditions also make effective cleanup efforts difficult.

The ice cover, extreme cold and limited accessibility make the implementation of traditional cleanup techniques, such as floating booms and debris separators, difficult and less effective, allowing the spilled oil to spread to a wider area. before it can be contained.






Arctic communities, especially indigenous peoples, rely heavily on the marine environment for their livelihoods, cultural practices, and economic activities such as fishing and hunting.

Oil spills can disrupt these activities, endangering food security and cultural continuity.

Additionally, Arctic wildlife, including marine mammals, birds and fish, are especially vulnerable to oil spills.






Thus, the 76th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 76) adopted amendments to MARPOL Annex I (addition of a new regulation 43A) to introduce a ban on the use and transportation for use as fuel of heavy fuel oil ( HFO) by ships in Arctic waters from July 1, 2024.


The ban covers the use and transportation for use as fuel of oils that have a density at 15°C greater than 900 kg/m3 or a kinematic viscosity at 50°C greater than 180 mm2/s.

Vessels dedicated to ensuring the safety of ships, or search and rescue operations, and vessels dedicated to preparing for and responding to oil spills will be exempt.

Vessels that meet certain construction standards regarding the protection of bunker oil tanks will be required to comply from 1 July 2029.


In addition, a MARPOL Party with a coast bordering Arctic waters may temporarily exempt ships flying its flag from the requirements while operating in waters subject to the sovereignty or jurisdiction of that Party, until 1 July 2029.






The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) explains that the ban includes exemptions that allow certain ships to continue using HFO in the Arctic until 2029.

These exemptions apply to ships with enhanced fuel tank protections and to ships under the jurisdiction of Arctic coastal states.

The ban only covers 16 percent of HFO burned and 30 percent of HFO transported as fuel, excluding HFO cargoes entirely.


Therefore, the risk of HFO spills into the sensitive Arctic marine ecosystems remains high.







The NGO Clean Arctic Alliance has called for immediate and full implementation of the HFO ban without loopholes, and has urged IMO Member States, especially Arctic coastal nations, to take stronger action.

They propose switching to cleaner fuels such as diesel or adopting alternative propulsion methods along with diesel particulate filters to reduce black carbon emissions by more than 90%.

Black carbon, a potent short-lived climate pollutant from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels, makes up a fifth of the climate impact of international shipping.


The Alliance highlights the urgency of reducing black carbon emissions due to their accelerated impact on the melting of the Arctic.







As Reuters reports, another problem is that it is unclear when Russia, responsible for more than half of the Arctic coast, will implement the ban.


Russia would have to approve amendments to a maritime convention on pollution before the regulations could come into force, the Russian mission to the IMO said in an October 2022 presentation.





Improve existing legislation while taking next steps.

The right approach to protecting the Arctic from the impacts of shipping would include:

Immediate IMO measures for ships operating in and around the Arctic to reduce black carbon emissions a new MARPOL Annex VI black carbon regulation (requiring a switch to cleaner, non-fossil or distillate fuels or alternative fuels) alternative means of propulsion).

New emission control areas that effectively reduce black carbon emissions.


¹. Accelerating the implementation of the HFO ban (with immediate implementation, without waiting until July 2024 and July 2029).


². Prohibition of the use of scrubbers (and their discharges) in the Arctic.


³. Immediate energy efficiency measures to reduce CO2 emissions and underwater noise from ships.


⁴. Elimination of all routine shipping dumping in the Arctic.


⁵. Implementation of a global decarbonization fast track that reduces the climate impact of shipping by 50 percent by 2030 due to the impact of global warming on the Arctic.






There will never be a sustainable future for the Arctic region or indigenous communities if we do not urgently address the impact of short-lived climate drivers, such as black carbon and methane, and begin to decarbonise shipping.


Meanwhile, according to the WWF, to mitigate these risks, Arctic states and marine industries must close loopholes in the HFO ban and stop granting exemptions to domestic vessels.

If full compliance is not possible, the following measures should be applied:

Area-based conservation measures – implement route restrictions, speed reductions, areas to avoid and piloting regimes to ensure safe, low-impact operations in sensitive marine areas and near harvest sites.


Emission Control Areas (ECAs): Support the establishment of ECAs across the Arctic and require the use of cleaner fuels, such as marine distillate fuels, to reduce the impact of spills and achieve co-benefits such as reduced carbon emissions. black carbon.


Maritime transport management plans:

Develop comprehensive plans to manage maritime transportation in priority areas, especially in bottleneck regions where intense maritime traffic overlaps with marine mammal migratory corridors.

Ice strengthening requirements:

Require oil and gas tankers, bulk carriers and cargo ships operating in Arctic waters to comply with ice strengthening requirements, outlined in the Polar Code.






In any case, the effectiveness of legislation aimed at mitigating the risks of HFO spills in the Arctic remains uncertain.

While the standards are established, their compliance and practical application in the remote and difficult Arctic environment pose ongoing challenges.