Before the MS Explorer sank off the coast of Antarctica seven years ago, passengers fled the ship in inflatable lifeboats in a scene reminiscent of the Titanic disaster.

All 154 passengers and crew were evacuated after the ship severely damaged its hull and began flooding while navigating through thick ice in the Bransfield Strait as part of an Antarctic tour. The lifeboats were so full of people that "you literally could not move your feet," according to one Canadian passenger in an official account released by the Liberian government, which registered the ship.

"It was a real wake-up call," said Jackie Dawson, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. She co-authored an article about another incident with a passenger ship three years later in the Arctic that involved not a sinking but a grounding on an underwater cliff.

Those incidents years apart and in different parts of the world—while not causing casualties—are the types of disasters the International Maritime Organization (IMO) wants to prevent. It is preparing the final draft of the "polar code," which if enacted would be the first comprehensive mandatory rules for commercial ships in polar regions. Currently, private ships are following voluntary international guidelines.

The code would set new requirements on ship design, environmental practices and safety operations for big ships like tankers, bulk carriers and cruise ships traveling through most Antarctic and Arctic waters. Because the code would be mandatory, countries could enforce its rules with criminal charges and fines. With scientific projections showing that melting ice will dramatically increase polar shipping opportunities by 2050, the decisions could have implications for decades, analysts say.

"This is a seminal moment," said Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

After years of discussions, the IMO—a branch of the United Nations—released an incomplete draft of the code this year, and the process is moving into a pivotal phase this week as an IMO committee tweaks and fills in the language. Another committee will make additional changes this fall.

Environmental groups vs. shippers
However, the draft is spurring sharp criticism from many environmental groups, who say it doesn't go far enough in the Arctic in particular to protect against possible oil spills, control pollution and block invasive species introduced by vessels, among other things. Other analysts criticize the process for being too slow and leaving regulatory gaps that do not prepare enough for possible disasters.

On the other side are shipping advocates and others expressing concern that the polar code could lead to unnecessary costs and regulations. Further, there is a risk in overloading the code now with environmental provisions, considering the IMO involves compromise among many nations, Brigham said.

"If you put too many things into some sort of new agreement, it may take a decade to get it through the system, or never," Brigham said.

Much of the immediate focus on the polar code centers on the Arctic, because of its potential role as a future shortcut for ships desiring a faster Europe-Asia passage.

In an Arctic strategy released in February, for example, the U.S. Navy said the Northwest Passage—a pathway across the Arctic along the Canadian and U.S. coasts—will be increasingly open during the late summer after 2030, and the Northern Sea Route—another route between the Bering Strait and Europe—could have nine weeks of open water then, compared with two weeks now.

For John Kaltenstein, marine program manager at Friends of the Earth, a chief problem with the current draft of the code is that it doesn't adequately address some of the most pressing environmental concerns with increased Arctic traffic, including the reliance of large Arctic ships on heavy fuel oil. That poses a major threat with oil spills, as well as with pollution that could worsen ice melt, he said.

"Big ships tend to use this molasses-like fuel that is rich with sulfur and heavy metals," Kaltenstein said. If there were a spill, heavy fuel oil would degrade slowly in the Arctic. It also releases significant black carbon emissions, he said.

Concerns about water and air pollution
The polar code does not directly address black carbon, even though its pollution could be controlled via filters and reduced speeds, he said. Black carbon, or soot, can speed up melt by making ice dark, increasing absorption of solar energy.

The code also exempts some ships from strengthening their hulls if they are operating in waters with shallow ice that is about a foot deep or less. That is a risk because it is hard to ascertain whether ice is that shallow in some circumstances, and any ice poses a potential threat, Kaltenstein said. "It's a common-sense thing."

Friends of the Earth, along with a coalition of other environmental groups, is also expressing concerns about wastewater discharge from ships, and invasive species like mollusks that could attach to ship hulls. While that is an issue anywhere, they say, polar regions may be less able to adapt to foreign organisms. They say they are worried those issues will be left out entirely in the months ahead.

Ships typically pick up water at a port, carry it for stability, then discharge the ballast water at another port.

"That could change the ecology of the Arctic," said Kaltenstein, adding he was concerned that fish and other food sources for native peoples could be at risk of contamination.

Environmental groups are not alone in their concerns. Earlier this month, British insurance market Lloyd's of London announced it was helping develop an Arctic regime to complement the polar code, after hosting a workshop where some attendees concluded that a lack of scientific data about the Arctic could lead to problems.

Mark Rosen, senior legal adviser at CNA Corp. who is not affiliated with environmental groups, said there should be a requirement in the code that ships operating in polar regions carry a certain level of insurance, based on their cargo. If there ever were a problem like an oil spill, there may not be adequate funds in place to clean it up, he said.

In a worst-case scenario even with a code, an unscrupulous shipowner wanting to import oil into Asia at low cost could hire underpaid mariners, ordering them not to stop at a port with a required inspection. The ship then runs aground with large amounts of oil. Affected coastal countries would have to pick up the cleanup costs—which could be eight to nine times the best insurance coverage policies, he said.

A capital requirement?
"Before you go up there and start driving a ship through the Arctic, you need to have sufficient capital wherewithal," said Rosen, who recently published an article about gaps in Arctic governance.

However, many environmental concerns are being addressed in other IMO committees and international forums, noted Bud Darr, senior vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at the Cruise Lines International Association.

The IMO is working on black carbon via a different committee outside of the polar code, for example. There also is a separate international plan in place to reduce global sulfur emissions by the end of the decade, which some say would mean a de facto ban on heavy fuel oil. "That's a bit of a red herring," said Darr about a call for a heavy oil ban.

There is a separate IMO international convention on management of ballast water—signed in 2004—that would come into force when ratified by a required number of 30 states.

On the hull strengthening issue, cruise ships would not take unnecessary risks, especially since they have to plan safe itineraries months in advance, Darr said. "We're not venturing into the kind of deep regions ... that some other operations might need to because it's their only route through."

His organization would have liked to have seen less restrictive requirements for ships operating in areas of little ice, because of the possibility of unnecessary costs. With some ships, it may not be possible to go back and add design features like ice-strengthened hulls that weren't there originally, he said. The Arctic will remain a "niche" within the cruise industry, despite the possibility of greater access, he said. "We're not talking about something comparable to the Caribbean," he said, adding that safety is the industry's first priority.

Additionally, there needs to be a companion effort to ensure that infrastructure is in place to handle provisions in the code now, like a ban on oily water discharge, he said.

Growing traffic, unanswered questions
Wayne Lundy, a member of the U.S. delegation to the IMO from the Coast Guard, made a similar point, saying there need to be adequate reception facilities on land to match the code language. "If a ship has oily waste on board, it will have to have a place where it can be disposed of properly," Lundy said. The Coast Guard led the U.S. delegation to the IMO, which included other federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. EPA.

There is a danger in rushing into provisions, Lundy said. The IMO committee examining black carbon, for example, hasn't agreed on how to measure emissions of the substance. It wouldn't make sense to put in restrictions on it yet from ships, if there is not an agreement on measurement of black carbon in the first place, he said.

The International Chamber of Shipping did not comment for this story, but in its 2013 annual report, it said it was "concerned that efforts by certain governments (and environmentalist NGOs) to treat the Arctic as if it is fundamentally different to any other sea area in which special dangers might apply may have the unwelcome effect of delaying the code's adoption."

Yet Kaltenstein said it would have made sense to deal with black carbon and other issues as part of the polar code process, to guarantee protections were in place quickly enough. He noted that it's been 10 years since the international ballast water convention was signed, and it's still not in force. There is already a framework in Antarctica for some environmental provisions, like a ban on heavy fuel oil, he said.

It's also not a given that heavy fuel oil will be banned in the Arctic by the end of the decade via a review of the global sulfur standard by the end of the decade, said Kaltenstein. The shipping industry, if it chooses to, could use alternative means of compliance, such as seawater scrubbers, and continue using heavy fuel oil, he said.

In a statement, the IMO said it does not comment on outside views, but "everyone is of course entitled to their views."

The polar code must work its way through several IMO committees, which will fill in the text about topics such as ship worker requirements. If everything goes to plan, the plan will be adopted this year at the U.N. agency. If it is later ratified by countries, the goal is for the code to be in place by 2016. Eventually, the plan is for smaller fishing vessels and yachts to be included as well, said Kaltenstein.

There are many, though, who think the time frame is unacceptable. There are already many ships moving through the Arctic now in the summer, and the traffic is growing without any clear rules, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

The number of vessels traveling the Northern Sea Route, for example, jumped from 41 ships in 2011 to 71

"Policymakers have to press that urgency button now," Conley said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500