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Canada expected to support heavy fuel ban in Arctic despite costs to northerners

The federal government is expected to support international measures that would reduce the environmental impact of Arctic shipping but would cost northern families hundreds of dollars a year.

On Monday, the International Maritime Organization is to begin considering how to eliminate the use of heavy fuel oil in ships sailing Arctic waters.

Arctic countries have already agreed to the move in principle, but the meeting is to set terms for the fuel’s phaseout. Heavy fuel oil, or HFO, is considered a major spill risk and a source of black carbon, which hastens the melting of sea ice.

“HFO constitutes the bottom of the barrel when it comes to shipping fuel,” said Dan Hubbell of the Ocean Conservancy. “It’s cheap, it’s dirty and it’s very persistent.”

Hubbell said a moderate spill in Russia in 2003 had big impacts still visible more than a decade later on marine mammals. The fuel is already banned in the Antarctic.

But replacement fuels are more expensive. Transport Canada has analyzed what higher costs would mean for Arctic communities, which depend on supplies ranging from dry goods to construction materials that arrive by sea.

It concluded the average Nunavut household would see an increase of up to $649 a year. Sealifts used by families to bring in bulk supplies of non-perishable commodities from the south would cost an extra $1,000 for a six-metre shipping container.

More than half of Eastern Arctic households are already considered severely food insecure, meaning they can’t always count on having enough food for their next meal.

Transport Canada says higher fuel prices will also affect mining companies and governments.

“A ban on HFO in the Arctic resulting in higher shipping costs passed on to the consumer would have a significant impact on households and communities,” the report says. “This could include direct and indirect effects on the health and quality of life of Indigenous and Inuit peoples living in the Arctic.”

Six out of eight Arctic countries currently support the ban. Russia is opposed and Canada has said it won’t announce its position until the meeting begins.

But in a telephone call with stakeholders last week, officials said Canada will side with the majority.

“They did confirm that they would be supporting the ban,” said Andrew Dumbrille of the World Wildlife Fund, who was on the call.

“Everybody else heard that too. It was pretty clear that’s the Canadian position.”

Neither the Nunavut government nor Nunavut Tunngavik, which oversees the Nunavut land claim, was available for comment.

The land-claim group has supported the ban in the past before the costs were analyzed.

Both Dumbrille and Hubbell agree the federal government should ease the cost concerns for northerners.

“The federal government needs to step up and manage the cost so it isn’t passed on to northerners,” Dumbrille said. “The environmental benefits are clear.”

The meeting is also to consider what makes up a heavy fuel oil. Regulations reducing the allowable amount of sulphur in fuel came into effect Jan. 1, but research has found that many new blends created to meet the new rules still emit black carbon.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2020

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press