Key insights:

  • In response to new shipping fuel regulations, the oil industry began offering Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLFSO) and Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (ULSFO) as alternatives
  • Many low sulphur fuels, in the event of an oil spill, will clump in cold Arctic waters, evading oil spill clean up equipment that's designed for liquid and creating a much larger environmental disaster
  • With the newest HFO ban, oil blenders have begun adding paraffins to the oil to make it lighter so that it no longer classifies as HFO. Paraffins exacerbate the issue of fuel clumping in Arctic waters
  • In the event of an oil spill, the new fuels being used as a result of these regulations could have a far worse environmental impact than the fuels being banned

As Arctic shipping increases, new regulations on fuel types are coming into effect. However, the shift towards new fuels, while well-intentioned, has led to unforeseen challenges in Arctic waters. In fact, new fuels in use because of tightening regulations could have a far worse environmental impact than the old fuels being banned in the event of an oil spill.

The Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR) and Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME) teamed up to fill a knowledge gap on how new fuels could impact the Arctic marine environment and oil spill response. The resulting project has provided critical insights, shedding light on new challenges and revealing that new parameters may be needed to minimize risks and promote healthy Arctic seas.

Arctic shipping is increasing

In recent years, diminishing sea ice has coincided with an increase in Arctic shipping. From 2013 to 2023, the number of ships entering the Arctic Polar Code area increased by 37% according to PAME. Not only are there more ships in Arctic waters, but the distance they sailed in the Arctic during that time period grew 111%. With more ships sailing longer distances in the Arctic, the type of fuel that ships use – and its impacts on Arctic ecosystems, especially in case of an oil spill – are of growing concern.

Fuels used by ships in the Arctic

Of all the challenges and opportunities that come with Arctic shipping, one that is less talked about is fuel use. Yet fuels in the Arctic – especially if spilled in the sea – can have major environmental and societal consequences. Small Arctic communities can experience major personal, socioeconomic and cultural impacts in the event of an oil spill, according to EPPR.

Ships operating in Arctic waters use several types of oil as fuel based on ship type, size, logistics and cost. According to Jon Arve Røyset, who works as an expert and project lead for PAME and EPPR, around half of the ships operating in the Arctic use residual fuels, while the other half use distillates. However, residuals are the more popular choice for large ships that burn more fuel, leading to a greater volume of residual fuels in use in Arctic waters.

Distillate fuels

Petroleum products created by refining crude oil. This oil is lighte, further refined & considered cleaner than residual fuels. Example fuel types include diesel fuel & #2 fuel oil.

Residual fuels

Residuals are leftover components of crude oil separated from upgraded, distilled products. Residuals tend to be heavier than distillates, & includes fuels categorized as Heavy Fuel Oil.

Jon Arve Røyset explains that while each fuel type has its pros and cons, the answer to which fuel type is better – or worse – for the Arctic marine environment is not so black and white.

"When PAME and EPPR set out to fill this knowledge gap, we found that these low sulphur fuels actually introduced new challenges." - Jon Arve Røyset

© Anders Røeggen / Kystverket

Changing fuel regulations

The shipping and fuel industries have undergone changes as various new regulations enter into force. In January 2020, driven by environmental and health concerns, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) enforced a cap on sulphur content in fuel oils, reducing the global sulphur limit from 3.50% to .50%. The IMO introduced these regulations to curb harmful sulphur emissions, expecting a shift away from residual fuels and towards cleaner distillate fuels. However, according to Jon Arve, a loophole quickly opened.

“The oil industry responded by offering Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) and Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (ULSFO),” said Jon Arve. “While these fuels comply with the sulphur regulations, these fuels are not tested in cold waters. That left a question mark in how these new fuels react if there were an oil spill in cold Arctic waters. When PAME and EPPR set out to fill this knowledge gap, we found that these low sulphur fuels actually introduced new challenges.”

The latest regulatory move on fuel oil will take effect on 1 July 2024, when the IMO will enforce a ban on the carriage and use of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) in the Arctic. The exception is for ships from Arctic States, which can temporarily waive the requirement until 1 January 2029.

Heavy Fuel Oils are heavy and tar-like. It’s particularly dangerous in the Arctic as it can sink in cold water, remaining at sea for weeks in the event of an oil spill. It also has some of the highest levels of exhaust emissions among marine fuels, particularly black carbon.

Several of the VLSFO and ULSFO fuels are also considered Heavy Fuel Oil – leading oil producers to come up with new solutions. Another loophole, according to Jon Arve, that could have serious consequences for the Arctic.

Fuel Behavior in Arctic Waters

In response to changing fuel regulations, PAME and EPPR joined forces to get a better understanding of the new fuels and the implications of their use in Arctic waters. The project, New Low Sulphur Fuels, Fate and Behavior Cold Water Conditions, identified the low sulphur fuels most commonly used in the Arctic, their transport volumes and their properties to understand how the fuel would act if accidently spilled in Arctic waters.

"With the rise in Arctic shipping, the risk of oil spills is also increasing. This project is the very first to test how new fuels behave in Arctic waters, providing vital information that will in turn inform our oil spill preparedness and response to ensure we are equipped to react swiftly and effectively to minimize environmental and societal damage,” said Ole Kristian Bjerkemo, Chair of EPPR.

Jon Arve, who leads this project, emphasizes one technical detail that is very important: pour point. This is the temperature below which fuel solidifies.

“In the Arctic, ocean temperatures can hover around 3° Celsius. High sulphur fuels and Heavy Fuel Oils – both categories that have already or will soon be banned – generally have a pour point that is around 0° Celsius or lower. That means if there was an oil spill into the sea, the oil would be very thick, but it would still be in liquid form,” explains Jon Arve.

However, PAME and EPPR’s latest project report revealed that the majority of the new low sulphur fuels that became popular after the IMO regulations have a high pour point, meaning the oil would solidify quickly upon contact with the sea, forming waxy clumps. This solidification can impair oil spill response efforts and wreak havoc on the environment.

Jon Arve has another concern. For the low sulphur fuels categorized as HFO, one solution by oil producers is to add in paraffins – a hydrocarbon liquid that lowers fuel weight so that it no longer classifies as HFO. Paraffins raise the pour point of fuels, exacerbating the issue of fuel clumping when it touches the ocean surface.

"Essentially, oil cleanup equipment will have very limited or even no effect at all if these new fuels spill in Arctic waters." - Jon Arve Røyset

© Tor Åge Thomassen / Kystverket

New fuels and oil spills in the Arctic

When high sulphur fuels or HFO spills in cold Arctic waters, it stays in liquid form relatively centered where the oil spill takes place until oil spill response equipment can be brought in for clean-up and oil-eating bacteria assists in breaking down the fuel. Oil clumps, however, behave very differently.

“Oil clumps drift away with wind and ocean currents and can spread over a much larger area,” said Jon Arve. “It could also drift into sea ice in large quantities where it can then freeze and cause significant impacts on the environment in the long term. The new fuels in use in the Arctic have varying levels of toxicity, but if you imagine a toxic oil spill in Arctic waters that then solidifies – you have highly toxic clumps spreading widely across the sea.”

Jon Arve explains that a major finding of the PAME-EPPR project is that current oil spill response equipment is not designed to handle clumps. “For example, oil skimmers are designed to collect liquid oil, and we have demonstrated that they fail to gather oil clumps. Essentially, oil cleanup equipment will have very limited or even no effect at all if these new fuels spill in Arctic waters.”

"In the event of an oil spill, the new fuels being used as a result of this ban could have a far worse environmental impact than the old fuels they are banning." - Jon Arve Røyset

© iStock

Unintended consequences of fuel regulations

The findings from the PAME-EPPR project suggest that the introduction of low-sulphur fuels might have unintended negative consequences for the Arctic environment.

“The IMO had the best intentions when they introduced the Heavy Fuel Oil ban, and it will no doubt make a positive environmental impact in many ways,” said Jon Arve. “However, in the event of an oil spill, the new fuels being used as a result of this ban could have a far worse environmental impact than the old fuels they are banning.”

As a result of PAME and EPPR’s report, Norway is advocating for new parameters in the definition of HFO to include fuels that have a pour point of over 0° Celsius, eliminating the risk of oil clumping in Arctic water. According to Jon Arve, the PAME-EPPR project was crucial in pinpointing the problems associated with new fuels and providing evidence of why they are harmful as impetus for regulation changes. The Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration wrote recommendations for the IMO and are currently in the processes of following that up.

So, what type of fuel is both practical for widespread use and minimizes the impact on the Arctic marine environment? According to Jon Arve, the answer is distillate fuels.

“Distillate fuels such as diesel are certainly not perfect and can have a negative impact on the environment,” explains Jon Arve. “However, they’re easier to manage in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic and we have the equipment needed to clean up. They also emit much less black carbon than other fuels.”

Industry insights

One unique element of the PAME-EPPR project is that it seeks to involve professionals in the maritime and oil blending industry to foster greater understanding and cooperation.

“We held a workshop with industry representatives in early 2024 that included people in the oil blending industry,” noted Jon Arve. “Their focus is on blending oil that meets requirements and regulations, not necessarily taking into account the consequences of an oil spill, so the issue with these new fuels spilling in Arctic waters was news for many of them. We spoke very openly with each other and learned a lot from them about the considerations and constraints they have when planning their fuel blends and so on. It was a very good learning experience – they learned the issues we have with how the fuel reacts in Arctic water, and we learned from their challenges.”

The shift to low-sulphur fuels in response to IMO regulations has introduced new risks for the Arctic marine environment. The PAME-EPPR project has shed light on these challenges, providing critical insights that could be key in mitigating potential risks.

“As the shipping industry continues to adapt to new regulatory landscapes, it’s important to balance environmental protection with practical fuel options that meet operational needs and ensure both compliance and safety,” said Jon Arve. “The ongoing collaboration between PAME, EPPR and industry stakeholders will be crucial in achieving this balance.”