By Julie Gedeon

Marine industry experts agree on the need for a mandatory Polar Code as soon as possible, but no one at the 5th Annual Arctic Shipping North America conference expected it to be done by 2014, as promised. Next year’s deadline is already a two-year extension from an earlier timetable.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has completed a draft of a Code of Safety for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, but its imminent release is expected to generate additional debate.

“We have a draft but it’s not very mature,” Andrew Kendrick, STX Canada Maine’s Vice-President of Ottawa Operations, said at the October conference. As a long-time member of Canada’s delegation at the IMO, Mr. Kendrick presented a factual framework of the current situation, but emphasized that his opinions were personal. “The draft is filled with square brackets, which is the IMO way of saying: we haven’t actually agreed on this yet, but here’s something that people would like to see in the regulations.”

The huge gaps that remain include a lack of meaningful discussion to date on how the Polar Code would apply to existing ships. “Will they be grandfathered or subject to phase-out schedules? What will have to be retrofitted?” Mr. Kendrick asked. “These are big economic questions for a lot of people and they have not been addressed.”

While it is generally agreed that international regulations would simplify matters and reduce costs for everyone, major questions remain regarding important matters such as a mandatory code’s enforcement. “Most measures for ships are enforced by their flag-state, but when you have countries that provide flags of convenience only, like Liberia, their ability to act as an enforcement mechanism is not necessarily as strong as that of a country like Canada,” Mr. Kendrick said. “Or, like Russia, which tends to enforce everything at gunpoint.”

While port-states have enforcement authority under the IMO, it only extends to destination shipments, and not transit traffic. Currently all ships, regardless of flag-state, are required to comply with Canada’s Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) as soon as they sail within 200 nautical miles from the Canadian shoreline.

“For an administration with a strong regime, such as Canada, how much should we be prepared to relax regulations to obtain international standards?” Mr. Kendrick asked. “We have a zero-discharge policy, for example, while others don’t. Are we prepared to allow more discharge of oily water and garbage into Arctic waters to get an agreement?”

Morten Mejlaender-Larson, Discipline Leader of Arctic Operations and Technology at Det Norske Veritas, one of the world’s largest classification societies, suggested that in some cases the goals are fundamentally the same and “existing regulations could be harmonized by simply reducing some of the bureaucracy associated with them.”

The IMO tends to favour goal-based standards, rather than proscriptive measures, making it very possible that some other nations will object to Canada’s more stringent rules. A number of nations have already objected to referring to IACS (International Association of Classification Societies Ltd) for polar class definitions because the association doesn’t include all classification societies, Mr. Kendrick noted.

However, Marcel Laroche, Marine Manager for Western Canada at Lloyd’s Register, suggested that a goal-based approach (to, for example, prevent air or water pollution) could also spur innovation. “It’s something we should consider, especially in the Arctic, where we have a great opportunity now as we do more work there,” he said.

Another potential difficulty lies in the IMO not recognizing the specific interests of the Arctic coastal states – a situation exacerbated, according to Mr. Kendrick, by the inability of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States to speak with one voice on most issues.

Mr. Laroche suggested that if an Arctic Council “got some teeth” by acting in unison, it could perhaps “chew on those areas” where the IMO remains silent for whatever reasons.

Aboriginal rights and concerns present another realm of possible contention. “For all the interest being placed in the Arctic and the challenges and opportunities that it presents, it is vital that one not lose sight of the fact that it is first and foremost a place where people live and have lived for generations,” said Naim Nazha, Transport Canada’s Marine Safety and Security Director of Personnel Standards and Pilotage. He noted the opportunity to influence management of the Arctic, including marine activities, when Canada becomes Chair of the Arctic Council for a two-year period starting in May 2013.

However, Mr. Mejlaender-Larson noted that while Arctic residents should certainly have a major say, “we have to accept that people outside the Arctic also have all kinds of interests there.” While he would prefer to have a Polar Code fixed within the IMO, he remained open to an Arctic Council along with Antarctic stakeholders establishing a mandatory Polar Code if the IMO process fails to reach consensus or takes too long to do so.

Current IMO guidelines were regarded by many attending a Canadian workshop in Ottawa as doing a reasonable job of defining best practices, according to Mr. Kendrick. The best practices include having ship-specific contingency plans that indicate where a search-and-rescue party will be, if required, as well as salvage services from a shore-based emergency response.

“There also seemed to be consensus among the Canadian and non-Canadian attendees at this workshop that the current Canadian system of controlling geographic access based on matching a ship’s capabilities with local ice conditions was an extremely important risk-management factor,” Mr. Kendrick said.

In addition to geographic access control, Canadian legislation requires a daily reporting of a vessel’s location within the Arctic, specific construction requirements (introduced in 1972, updated in 1995 and now referring to new polar classes of vessels), mandated equipment for Arctic sailing, as well as a zero-discharge regime for most waterborne substances. “While there are required crew qualifications, these are not particularly well-defined,” Mr. Kendrick added.

He noted that the Russian Northern Sea Route Administration has a very similar “mix of measures,” and Denmark’s slightly more restrictive legislation attempts to cover off the same main elements. Meanwhile, Norway has only a few requirements for Svalbard. “Conspicuous by its absence is the United States,” Mr. Kendrick said. “There are no U.S. Coast Guard regulations specific to the Arctic.” Only general shipping legislation applies.

As for the Antarctic, waters south of 60° fall under special provisions of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) to prevent or restrict various forms of discharge. The only other requirement is for tourism operators to file an environmental assessment of their itinerary well in advance of their departure.

History is one reason why many are pessimistic about a quick conclusion to current negotiations. The need for a polar code was recognized back in 1992 and an IMO committee was promptly assembled to draft requirements for ships in Arctic and Antarctic waters.

“There was almost a decade of work invested into that. Yet, at a fairly late stage, the proposed mandatory code was turned into guidelines,” Mr. Kendrick related. “We couldn’t achieve international consensus on making it mandatory.”

Objections raised by a few Antarctic Treaty nations led to the IMO restricting the Polar Code guidelines to Arctic waters in 2002. After a few high-profile mishaps, such as the sinking of the M/S Explorer expedition cruise ship in 2007, the Antarctic nations agreed that Antarctic waters had to be included in the Polar Code and the IMO incorporated the region into the existing guidelines in 2009.

“What’s interesting is that we’re no longer talking about it only for ice-covered waters, because it’s realized that ice isn’t the only hazard,” Mr. Kendrick said. “It’s the remoteness, frequently extreme weather conditions, lack of hydrographic data, along with other factors.”

It was decided back in the 1990s that construction requirements should be left to the specialists, namely classification societies and particularly the first-tier ones belonging to the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS). IACS took the lead in developing Unified Requirements for polar-class ships, and UR1 through UR3 were promulgated by the IMO in 2007 for general hull construction and machinery requirements.

“What has been a huge disappointment to me is that my understanding was that once Unified Requirements were adopted, all of the classification societies were supposed to incorporate these into their own rules within a certain period,” Mr. Kendrick said. “Although the Russian register was a major part of this initiative, and the Unified Requirements have a lot of Russian DNA, it is still applying its own system, and while its ice-class specifications are similar, they are not identical to the Unified Requirements.”

However, Mr. Laroche at Lloyd’s Register, said he was encouraged by Russia having recently incorporated the polar class rules as a new section within its regulations – seemingly putting Unified Requirements one step closer to replacing Russia’s existing standards.

Also on the positive side is that the existing IMO Polar Code guidelines and Unified Requirements use the same definitions for polar classes, and they reference each other, thus simplifying at least one realm of discussions.

Work on drafting the new internationally mandatory Polar Code has been tasked to the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Equipment since 2010, which presents its efforts to the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, and the Marine Environment Protection Committee. Various working group sessions, as well as an inter-sessional Correspondence Group, have been established to enable all stakeholders to provide feedback.

The Polar Code is intended to be a stand-alone document, but its safety provisions are expected to be incorporated into the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and its environmental regulations to fall under MARPOL’s relevant annexes regarding pollution prevention.

James Bond, Director of Shared Technology at American Bureau of Shipping, noted an uptick in Arctic activity with more designs for ice-class ships being presented for ABS’s perusal in recent months. “If national regulations will be placed on top of an international Polar Code, it will make it much more difficult for us to communicate requirements to our clients,” he warned.

Mr. Laroche noted that IACS members are working on various projects to fill the gaps in the existing draft by working on proposed specifications for icebreakers, as well as compression data loads, web frames, valve design loads, and updated machinery requirements.

Per Sønderstrup, Head of Centre at the Danish Maritime Authority, said additional enforcement of navigating ships is definitely required, especially with the steady arrival of newcomers to Arctic voyaging. “SOLAS and MARPOL constitute fairly good regulations for international shipping, but we need some additional Arctic regulations and, therefore, the Polar Code,” he stated.

The challenges of Arctic navigation remain inherent, he added. “Yes, there’s been a decrease in ice coverage, but there’s still a lot of drifting ice and that won’t disappear,” he emphasized. “This is important to note because some politicians talk as if there’s no ice, and there definitely is.”