Lessons of the Incident in the Gulf of Mexico Should Help Protect the Arctic
Ten years ago, the most major threats of oil
spills in the Arctic were associated with the development of continental shelf
projects, but starting with 2017, the rapid growth of shipping has become the
main reason for the increased risks of oil spills.
In 2019, the freight traffic of the Northern Sea Route significantly increased, amounting to 31.5 million tons, while it was 19.7 million tons in 2018, and just 10.7 million tons in 2017. Despite the current global economic crisis, the Russian government is making every effort to achieve its declared goal of increasing NSR traffic to 80 million tons by 2024. According to the Order No. 54 of April 10, 2020, of the Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic, April 15 will mark the start of the selection of investment projects planned for implementation in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation, in order to grant them Government preferences and subsidies for infrastructure support. It is important to note that ship traffic is increasing on the eastern vector of NSP as well, including such an important and sensitive ecoregion as the Bering Strait, which also implies the growth of a wide range of environmental risks and impacts.
The March-April 2020 incident involving the
Varzuga tanker, which got stuck in the ice of the Gulf of Ob due to a damaged
azipod, should become a wake-up call for Russia. Resolving this situation
required conducting a complex towing operation that lasted from March 29 to
April 7, 2020, and involved two nuclear-powered icebreakers and a tugboat. The
first part of the towing operation to rescue the distressed tanker with a gross
tonnage of 16 thousand had to be carried out in solid ice with a thickness of
up to 1.5-2.0 meters. The situation was further complicated by shallow waters,
which limited the more powerful atomic icebreaker used to tow the tanker.
"The most effective way of reducing the risks of oil spills from ships is to replace oil fuels with alternative ones, such as LNG. And this year saw the first important step in this direction: the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) prepared and approved amendments to MARPOL 73/78 Annex I, Regulations for the Prevention of Pollution by Oil, that involve the introduction of a ban on such 'dirty fuels' as Heavy oil fuel (HFO)," says Alexey Knizhnikov, Head of Responsible industry program at WWF-Russia "We expect these amendments to be approved by the Marine Environment Protection Committee of IMO by the end of 2020. And starting with 2021, under the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Council, a new set of measures will be implemented within the framework of the Sustainable Arctic Shipping initiative in order to accelerate the switch of ships in the Arctic to alternative fuels. It should be noted that among other ships for Russian companies, the Zvezda shipyard also builds Arctic LNG vessels."
Given the transboundary nature of the waters of the Bering Strait, WWF expects that as soon as this year Russia and the United States will intensify their cooperation in oil spill prevention and response in the region, in particular by achieving the following tasks:
Specialized scientific organizations of Russia and the USA, primarily the Roshydromet system and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will resume their cooperation in oil spill prevention and response.
The two countries will intensify their joint work to further the integration of the online pollution control system ERMA into their cross-border cooperation. This system has been shown to be effective even in dealing with the aftermath of the incident in the Gulf of Mexico. A regional version of the program has been created and is currently used in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, however it requires to be constantly updated with new data, including information on biodiversity.
In the light of the prospect of ships being switched to new fuels, WWF deems it important to establish a mechanism for sharing research data on the environmental consequences of emergencies involving new types of fuels.
It is necessary to share Russia's successful experience in the Barents and Baltic Seas within the framework of Russian-American cooperation in oil spill response. The two countries should schedule a full-scale oil spill response exercise in the Bering Strait in upcoming several years.
Photo credits: (c) Dmitry Ryabov / WWF-Russia