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It’s Time to Phase Out Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

It’s Time to Phase Out Heavy Fuel Oil in the Arctic

October 25, 2017

By James Gamble

On Nov. 28, 2004, the Malaysian flagged cargo vessel Selendang Ayu departed the Port of Seattle on a voyage to Xiamen, China, carrying a cargo of soybeans. Following the North Pacific Great Circle Route, the vessel transited north through Unamak Pass in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska a week later, but shortly after the ship’s engine malfunctioned and had to be shut down 100 miles from Dutch Harbor, the nearest port and one of the busiest fishing communities in the United States. The vessel could not call for assistance until it was within radio range of Dutch Harbor, so the crew attempted to make repairs as the weather worsened.

Eventually, the harbormaster was reached by satellite phone and the ship was assisted by a tugboat from Dutch Harbor and U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley. After failed attempts to repair the engine, a tow was established, but the light tug was only able to slow the progress of the crippled vessel toward the shore, where it would run aground and likely be broken up by the high winds and strong waves. The 45- to 55-knot winds and 25-foot waves made it impossible for a second tugboat to help.

The vessel drifted into water shallow enough for the anchor to be dropped, which stopped the drift for about an hour until the weather worsened and it began to move toward shore again. At this point, the Coast Guard initiated a rescue and began to remove crew members from the Selendang Ayu with two helicopters from Kodiak Coast Guard Station. As the last crew members were being lifted away from the stricken vessel a wave broke over the bow and washed into the rotors of the helicopter, causing it to crash into the ocean. A smaller helicopter from the Alex Haley was dispatched to rescue the men from the water, but six members of the Selendang Ayu’s crew died.

Shortly after, on Dec. 8, 2004, the Selendang Ayu ran aground and broke upon the rocks of Unalaska Island, spilling 338,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil. It was the second-largest oil spill in Alaska’s history, behind the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

It’s telling that the two worst oil spills in Alaska’s history did not come from rig blowouts or other oil exploration and production accidents, but from shipping incidents—both ships ran aground. The Selendang Ayu wasn’t even an oil tanker; it was a large cargo vessel and spilled just 3 percent of the oil released by the Exxon Valdez. Both incidents can be traced back to human error: poor maintenance in the case of Seledang Ayu and poor crew communication in the case of Exxon Valdez. After losing their engine the crew of the Selendag Ayu transferred as much oil as possible to internal tanks and turned off the heaters so the oil would flow more slowly, but it was not enough.

The noxious nature of heavy fuel oil has led the International Maritime Organization to ban its use in Antarctic waters. Heavy fuel oils are classified as crude oils with a density higher than 900 kilograms per cubic meter, at 15 degrees Celsius, and other oils with either similar density or kinematic viscosity higher than 180 square millimeters per second, at 50 degrees Celsius, as well as bitumen, tar, and any mixture of the two.

In general, these types of fuels are the products obtained after everything else has been refined from crude oil—they’re the bottom of the barrel. They are cheap and primarily used in large vessels where, because of their extreme viscosity, they must be heated in order to be injected into engine cylinders and burned. These fuels are often contaminated with sulphur, so burning them produces sulphur dioxide in addition to black carbon (soot) and other pollutants. Therefore, the ban on this type of fuel in Antarctic waters not only prevents pollution from possible spills, but also eliminates the air pollution emitted when these fuels are burned.

While a spill of any type of oil can have devastating ecological consequences, heavy fuel oil spills are especially damaging. While spills of distillate fuel (such as diesel) are serious, they tend to evaporate and break down quickly, whereas heavy fuel oil has a tendency to clump together and can take many weeks to break down. In cold conditions heavy fuel oil may become denser than the surrounding water, causing it to sink and coat the ground. In summer months, when the weather warms, the oil can float to the surface and wash up on the shoreline. This occurred after a spill from the Swedish vessel Thunktank in the Baltic Sea in December 1986, resulting in oily beaches in subsequent years.

The ban was implemented to protect the Antarctic, a fragile and unique ecosystem, where very little infrastructure exists to assist vessels in trouble or deal with a cleanup operation should a spill occur. The same conditions exist in the Arctic. This is particularly true in the high sea areas of the Arctic Ocean, and in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Canada and Alaska. In the Arctic, a third factor heightens the urgency of a ban on heavy fuel oil: people. Thriving coastal communities exist in the eight Arctic states, and virtually all of them depend on the ocean as a source of food and transportation. Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic, who have lived in these places for millennia, rely on the seas for subsistence resources. Commercial fisheries, hunting marine mammals and gathering shellfish, seaweed, and other marine resources are not only a source of food, but a way of maintaining a connection to culture.

It should be noted that the IMO Polar Code, which went into force on Jan. 1, 2017, already discourages both the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. So why would such a ban be difficult to achieve? One component is economics. There is more vessel traffic in the Arctic than in the Antarctic, so a ban would affect more companies. With Arctic sea ice receding at a quickening pace because of climate change,  there is a strong likelihood that this traffic will increase substantially over the coming decades. International shipping operates on very thin profit margins and while vessels can operate well on cleaner fuels such as diesel or liquefied natural gas, these fuels are more expensive, and existing vessels would have to be retrofitted with new fuel systems. Additionally, heavy fuel oil currently powers vessels that deliver goods to northern communities and, in some cases, is used onshore for heating and to generate electricity, particularly in the Russian Federation. Finally, a ban on heavy fuel oil may be opposed by Arctic communities that equate the term with diesel fuel, which is still an essential resource in the region. Outreach and education about heavy fuel oil is necessary to allay their concerns.

The ban in Antarctica refers to both the use and carriage of these fuels as cargo. In the Arctic, a ban on use but not carriage could also be considered. This would help to alleviate the air pollution caused by the use of heavy fuel oil, but not the danger posed by possible spills from tanker vessels involved in shipping accidents.

The Selendang Ayu incident happened in sub-Arctic waters, so an IMO ban on the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic would not have changed the outcome of the spill. While a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic would benefit the environment, it is also necessary to understand the potential effect it would have on small Arctic communities. The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) of the Arctic Council is currently working on a report titled, “Mitigating Risks Associated with the Use and Carriage by Ships of HFO in the Arctic: Assessment of Indigenous and Local Community Reliance Upon Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO),” which will be released in early 2019. The report will emphasize the effects of a policy change on communities, and assess the relative importance of access to heavy fuel oil as a fuel source onshore or as a transport fuel used to deliver supplies. It will address the unanticipated economic consequences of limiting access to a fuel used by an industry that provides jobs in the Arctic’s Indigenous communities.



James Gamble is a senior fellow at the Institute of the North, where he focuses on the Arctic Council. He is the former executive director of the Aleut International Association. He can be reached at

[Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Environmental

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.