Bellona’s Arctic Frontiers event offers safe fuels for Arctic shipping expansion

Polar ice melt.
Polar ice melt.

Publish date: January 23, 2019

The Arctic’s icecap is shrinking 12 percent faster than it was a decade ago, and nearly all of its older and thicker ice is already gone. By 2045, it might be possible to sail straight over the top of the world, says Nick Hughes, who leads the Norwegian Ice Service.

The Arctic’s icecap is shrinking 12 percent faster than it was a decade ago, and nearly all of its older and thicker ice is already gone. By 2045, it might be possible to sail straight over the top of the world, says Nick Hughes, who leads the Norwegian Ice Service.

Hughes was speaking at the Arctic Frontiers conference, at a side event today sponsored by Bellona called The Arctic Fuel Menu and the Northern Sea Route. As Russia pushes to harness that Arctic sea passage, more and more shipping threatens to make a fragile environment yet more vulnerable to the forces that are destroying it.

The stakes are especially high. The emissions a large freighter or cruise ship puts out in one day can equal those spewed by one million cars in the course of an entire year. Their smog coats the retreating ice in black soot, making it more susceptible to withering solar radiation.

Yet the Kremlin’s specific goal is to raise the amount of cargo traffic sailing through the route to 80 million tons a year – a sharp increase over present levels – and it has marshaled a vast array of government resources to do so.

Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, has be granted near complete control over developing ports along Russia’s northern coast, as well as for regulating the shipping traffic making the 4,500-kilometer East-West journey through the passage with the help of its nuclear icebreaker fleet.

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. Credit: Murmansky Vestnik

Along the way are massive deposits of natural gas, such as those at the Yamal LNG project, as well as minerals and coal, all of which are becoming the subject of a northbound gold rush as South Korea and China develop ice-class freighters capable of hauling home the bounty. Last summer, the Maersk line even sent a container ship through the Arctic to test the warming waters, and while the world’s largest shipper isn’t adding any Arctic routes to its schedule just yet, it’s not hard to see a future when it will.

Bellona’s event set out to address this inevitability, and to discuss how the process could develop in a way that doesn’t destroy an already brittle environment. Warming in the Arctic already accounts for a Polar Vortex that is plunging southward, bringing with it chaotic and destructive weather that has already leveled cities. More intense hurricanes, droughts, coastal erosion and wildfires are just some of the consequences that have threatened places as disparate as Venice, Italy and California, Key West, Florida and Alaska.

So how can such an expansive increase in vessel traffic move forward when so much is at stake for the rest of the world?

Those gathered at Bellona’s event had no panaceas to offer, but some could present a glimmer of hope suggesting that things don’t necessarily have to get worse. One key is reeling in the emissions produced by the world’s fleet of ships, making them less damaging to the atmosphere, and less likely to pollute the Arctic’s fragile environment with the carbon-intensive fuels that usually power them.

Both Sovkomflot, Russia’s largest shipper, and Norway’s Hurtigruten, the country’s leading cruise, ferry and cargo operator, were among those who spoke at Bellona’s event. And both are pursing ways to operate ships that won’t add to the planet warming carbon footprint over the Arctic.

Sovkomflot, for instance, is moving to modernize its freighters so they run on liquefied natural gas – which is far less polluting than traditional fuels. This, said Yury Malyshev, the company’s representative, is not just an effort to ease the erosion of the Arctic. It will also help bring the company into tune with worldwide maritime regulations going into force next year. Having completed successful tests with LNG powered engines, the company has commissioned fleet of them, with the flagship expected to take to water in 2022.

Plans offered by Hurtigruten may be even more aggressive. As of 10 years ago, said Anne-Marit Bjørnflaten, the company’s representative, Hurtigruten entirely swore off heavy fuel oil, or HFO – an especially potent pollutant – and is calling for regulations that would ban its use in the Arctic.

But that, says the company, is not enough. So next winter, it will launch two new ships – the MS Roald Amundsen and the MS Fridtjof Nansen –– which will run on hybrid electric engines. Other ships will be built to run on biomass. On existing vessels, the company is installing battery backs and LNG-capable engines. But eventually, Hurtigruten intends to operate entirely without emissions.

Over the next few days, our website will be reporting these and other proposals from the Arctic Fuel Menu forum. While there doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the damage already done, dialogues with shippers – such as Bellona’s event – can help assure that things don’t get worse.