The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) met for its 68th session from 11-15 May 2015 at the IMO headquarters in London where it adopted the environmental element of the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code). MEPC also adopted associated amendments under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), making the Polar Code mandatory.

The adoption follows on from the approval of the safety element of the Polar Code in November 2014 by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), including related amendments to make it mandatory under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). As a result, vessels operating in the polar regions will have to comply with strict environmental and safety requirements, specific to the volatile conditions in the two polar regions.

The Polar Code encompasses a full range of requirements, relating to design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters pertinent to vessels operating within polar waters. The latest environmental requirements which have been adopted include:

  • Prevention of pollution by oil: discharge into the sea of oil or oily mixtures from any vessel is prohibited. Oil fuel tanks must also be separated from the vessel’s outer shell.
  • Prevention of pollution by noxious liquid: discharge into the sea of noxious liquid substances, or mixtures containing such substances, is prohibited.
  • Discharge of sewage is prohibited unless performed in line with MARPOL Annex IV and requirements in the Polar Code.
  • Discharge of garbage is restricted and only permitted in accordance with MARPOL Annex V and requirements in the Polar Code.

As this completes the process required to make the Polar Code mandatory, it is expected that the code will enter into force on 1 January 2017 and will apply to new vessels constructed on, or after, that date. Vessels constructed before that date will be required to meet the applicable requirements of the Polar Code by their first intermediate or renewal survey (whichever occurs first) after 1 January 2018.

Although the Polar Code certainly makes the first step in enhancing Arctic marine safety and environmental protection, critics remain disappointed that the code “does not go far enough”. Environmental organisations have expressed their concern that the Polar Code fails to fully protect the South Pole, for example, as the regulations still permit raw sewage to be discharged beyond 12 nautical miles from land. There has also been concern that, while some vessels may carry the proper equipment, the Polar Code falls short at setting out exactly what should happen if an oil or chemical spill occurs. In addition, there is concern that heavy fuel oil use by vessels in the Arctic has not been prohibited (despite the fact that it has been banned in the Antarctic since 2010). It has been claimed that removing heavy fuel oil in the Arctic region would reduce black carbon emissions and the risk of oil spill damage, offering a dual benefit to the environment.

While these issues were not integrated by the IMO in the recent phase of the Polar Code (which was said to be specific to larger vessels such as oil tankers, bulk carriers and cruise liners), there should still be an opportunity for these issues to be addressed in phase two of the Polar Code which is expected to include additional categories of vessels such as yachts, fishing vessels and specialised craft.

Notwithstanding the criticisms, the Polar Code is a positive step forward for the shipping and offshore industries, in that it recognises the need to respond to the ever increasing number of vessels operating in polar waters, enhances the safety and environmental protection of these regions, and provides the international shipping world with a concrete set of mandatory provisions to bring those protections together.