Arctic and Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO): Learnings from the Sanchi Oil Tanker Disaster

The Arctic is one of the world’s most pristine and delicate environments, and one of the most imperiled by climate change. To make matters worse, profiteering by the shipping industry is spreading a dark shadow over this amazing landscape. As the Arctic sea ice melts, shipping companies eager for shorter routes and larger profits are increasingly using Arctic routes and burning one of the world’s dirtiest fuels, heavy fuel oil (HFO) to power their ships.  HFO is highly viscous (very thick – think tar or blackstrap molasses). On land it is classified as hazardous waste. And because HFO is a waste product, it is a very cheap fuel for the shipping industry. Using HFO in the Arctic is a disaster in waiting, as the recent events in the South China sea have demonstrated.

On Jan 6th, a Panamanian-flagged Iranian crude oil tanker, the Sanchi, crashed into a Chinese freighter ship, the CF Crystal, in open waters off the coast of Shanghai. The Sanchi used HFO to power its engines and was carrying a cargo of 136,000 tons (approximately 40 million gallons or over 60 Olympic swimming pools) of a type of ultra-light, highly flammable crude oil called condensate. The tanker burned for over week, and finally exploded and sank beneath the waves on January 14th. All 32 crew members were lost.

In addition to the tragic loss of human life, the ecological disaster continues to unfold—and may continue to threaten human and environmental health for years to come. This is the largest spill of condensate in history—perhaps the largest tanker spill in 35 years--and no one is completely certain what the consequences will be. 

No one knows how much HFO may be leaking from the sunken Sanchi tanker, but researchers are concerned about the potential long-term impacts. In the event of an accident, this thick hazardous waste oil is not only toxic to marine life but persists in the environment for a very long time. It is likely that the fuel tanks will continue to slowly leak over a long period of time, potentially causing significant localized impacts.

Many fish species are highly sensitive to reproductive and other abnormalities from the compounds in HFO (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs) —and the area where the Sanchi sank includes important spawning and wintering grounds for commercially important species, such as Bluefin leatherjacket, sword tip squid, and chub mackerel, among others. It’s also in the migratory pathway of marine mammals like humpback and right whales. 

Very little of the Sanchi’s oil has been recovered, but regardless of weather, there is no effective response to an oil tanker disaster. A typical recovery rate of conventional crude spilled in a marine environment—where it floats on water and evaporates more slowly than condensate—is around 10 to 15% of the crude spilled. In the Arctic, the response gap for oil spills means that much of the time any recovery at all is impossible. That means a spill of toxic petroleum products like HFO will impact the environment for years afterward. 

In fact, the International Maritime Organization has already banned ships from using HFO in the Antarctic because of the risk to these delicate ecosystems with such harsh, unforgiving weather. And compared to the Antarctic, there are far more shipping routes in the Arctic. 

Even without a tragedy like the Sanchi oil tanker disaster, burning HFO to power ships poses a serious and immediate threat to the Arctic environment. When burned, HFO not only releases large amounts of global warming causing greenhouse gases (GHGs) but also releases large amounts of soot, also called black carbon. Soot is particularly problematic in places like the Arctic, where it settles on Arctic sea ice. Because soot retains heat, rather than reflecting solar radiation back out to space the way white sea ice does, it accelerates the rate at which the ice in the Arctic is melting. Black carbon is responsible for 7-21% of shipping’s climate warming impact. 

That’s why Stand.earth is fighting to keep HFOs out of the delicate and imperiled Arctic waters.
 
HFO risks are especially problematic when juxtaposed with the threat of cruise ships in the Arctic, which provide no value outside of recreation.  While cruisers are going on Arctic voyages to appreciate the unique environment and wildlife found only there, the very ships they sail on are burning the most dangerous possible fuel for that same ecosystem, while spewing greenhouse gases and ice-melting black carbon throughout this otherwise pristine environment. 

The cruise industry must step up and take responsibility for minimizing its impacts on the beautiful places its clients are paying to see. We’re asking the largest cruise ship company in the world, Carnival Corporation with its 10 total brands, to clean up its #DirtyShips and stop burning hazardous HFOs in the Arctic. 

Join us in asking Carnival to clean up its act. Sign our petition here.