NGOs have written an open letter to the leaders of the US, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, calling on them to work towards banning the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters in order to prevent a potentially “catastrophic” oil spill, which the organisations say is becoming statistically more likely.
There were 71 shipping casualties within the Arctic in 2015, as opposed to just three in 2005, according to a report published this year by Allianz Global. The US Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS) expects shipping transits via the US Arctic alone to increase by between 100 and 500% by 2025.
A “significant risk reduction will be achieved if the onboard oil type is of distillate type rather than HFO”, according to a 2011 report by the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group.
HFO spills are up to 50 times more toxic to fish than medium and light crude oil spills, research has found. The very viscous oil takes longer to break down in the marine environment – up to 90% of a HFO spill can remain after 20 days, and could persist even longer if the oil were to become trapped within ice.
A HFO spill would not only affect the Arctic’s marine environment and wildlife, but also the indigenous communities dependent on marine subsistence hunting, the NGOs say. Inhalation of vapors, as well as direct or indirect ingestion of HFO can prove lethal to individual animals and have a knock-on effect on the wider food chain.
Research suggests the impact the1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill had on the marine environment was still detectable 10 years after the incident, the letter states.
The NGOs’ comments come ahead of the US-Nordic Leaders Summit on Friday, in which US president Barack Obama will host the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden at the White House.
The letter is addressed to Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the White House’s Arctic executive steering committee, and signed by senior officials from NGOs Clean Air Task Force, Environmental Investigation Agency, Friends of the Earth, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment and the WWF Global Arctic Program.