Environment

7 Reasons Why You Should Be Worried About Heavy Fuel Oil

A serious threat lurking in the Arctic has largely escaped attention.

Heavy fuel oil is the most commonly used fuel in the Arctic.
Photo Credit: Katiekk/Shutterstock

There is a serious threat lurking in the Arctic that has largely escaped attention from the public and the media. Once possible only in the dreams of intrepid sea captains, ships just started traveling through the icy Arctic even in the depths of winter.

New shipping routes and increasing ship traffic due to ice melt bring greater environmental hazards. One of the most critical risks facing the Arctic, aside from climate change, is the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO).

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Here are seven reasons why heavy fuel oil should be one of today's most talked about environmental concerns. 

1. It’s basically heated tar.

Heavy fuel oil, also known as residual fuel or bunker oil, is the tar-like sludge that is left over from the crude oil refining process. It’s essentially the bottom of the barrel. It’s so viscous it has to be heated to allow it to flow before it can be used by ships. The only denser oils are those used in asphalt and roof sealing. 

2. It’s the fuel of choice for ships in the Arctic.

The International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has already banned HFO in Antarctic waters, yet it is still the most commonly used fuel in the Arctic. More than 1,300 ships sail through the Arctic every year, and 75% of the total mass of fuel on board is HFO. 

3. It covers the land in soot.

Ships using HFO emit sulfur, nitrogen oxides and black carbon. Also known as soot, black carbon is deposited by passing ships onto ice and snow, causing the affected area to absorb more radiation from the sun instead of reflecting it away. This leads to more warming and more melting, creating a vicious cycle. Black carbon emissions are expected to increase, possibly as much as 46%, as Arctic shipping traffic continues to increase every year. 

Passing ships deposit dust and black carbon on the ice around this climate station.

4. It can cause asthma, lung cancer and birth defects.

Black carbon is also a major threat to human health. Its fine particles are small enough to be inhaled into our lungs and cause respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and birth defects. This puts four million people from eight Arctic nations at risk of severe medical conditions. 

5. It’s virtually impossible to clean up after a spill.

Heavy fuel oil is cheaper than other crude oil, but is several times more expensive to clean up after a spill. The chilly Arctic waters prevent this oil from dispersing or degrading naturally, and it tends to sink rather than float on the surface. During warmer months, sunken HFO can rise back to the surface and pollute shores that were already considered to be clean. 

A heavy fuel oil spill would devastate Arctic wildlife like whales, seals, walrus and seabirds.

6. It could destroy Arctic ecosystems.

Heavy fuel oil is toxic to fish; seabirds and marine mammals that are covered by the oil are at risk of hypothermia or death. This isn’t speculation: In 2003, a tanker ship collided with another vessel in Russia’s White Sea, spilling 54 tons of HFO into prime beluga whale calving habitat.

Only 16 percent of the oil was ever recovered, and the area is still 22 times the permissible contamination level set by the Russian government. Multiple beluga carcasses were found in the area, and the whales have been forced to seek other areas in which to give birth. 

A dead sea otter covered in oil from a grounded ship near Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

7. It could devastate Arctic communities.

A spill would be disastrous for hundreds of indigenous communities that depend on ocean life for subsistence, as well as commercial fisheries that in many areas serve as economic foundations. In 2004, a cargo vessel lost power and ran aground outside of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, spilling 338,000 gallons of fuel. This forced a portion of the tanner crab season to be canceled. Fishermen operating out of the harbor lost an estimated $500,000 in revenue. 

We are putting pressure on the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization and country delegations to get HFO out of the Arctic. After moving HFO to the top of the Arctic policy agenda in 2017, we are working to make sure that we start transitioning ships in the Arctic from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy. 

Kevin Harun is the Arctic Program Director at Pacific Environment.