What does the 2020 Global Sulphur emissions policy mean in practise?

In little more than 2 years shipping will have to shift to low sulphur fuel. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has set a global limit for sulphur in fuel oil used on board ships of 0.50% m/m (mass by mass) from 1 January 2020. This will significantly reduce the amount of sulphur oxide emanating from ships and should have major health and environmental benefits for the world, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts. 

IMO has been working to reduce harmful impacts of shipping on the environment since the 1960s and the regulations for the Prevention of Air Pollution from Ships seek to control airborne emissions from ships (sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone depleting substances (ODS), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and shipboard incineration) and their contribution to local and global air pollution, human health issues and environmental problems.

Under the new global cap, ships will have to use fuel oil on board with a sulphur content of no more than 0.50% m/m, against the current limit of 3.50%, which has been in effect since 1 January 2012.

The interpretation of “fuel oil used on board” includes use in main and auxiliary engines and boilers.

Exemptions are provided for situations involving the safety of the ship or saving life at sea, or if a ship or its equipment is damaged.

Another exemption allows for a ship to conduct trials for the development of ship emission reduction and control technologies and engine design programmes. This would require a special permit from the Administration(s) (flag State(s)).

Ships can meet the requirement by using low-sulphur compliant fuel oil.

An increasing number of ships are also using gas as a fuel as when ignited it leads to negligible sulphur oxide emissions. This has been recognised in the development by IMO of the International Code for Ships using Gases and other Low Flashpoint Fuels (the IGF Code), which was adopted in 2015. Another alternative fuel is methanol which is being used on some short sea services.

Ships may also meet the SOx emission requirements by using approved equivalent methods, such as exhaust gas cleaning systems or “scrubbers”, which “clean” the emissions before they are released into the atmosphere.

Last month, an ExxonMobil survey highlighted an ongoing sense of confusion and a lack of preparedness, with 70% of respondents saying that they do not believe that the industry is ready for the deadline, when a global limit of 0.5% sulphur will be imposed on marine fuel for vessels trading internationally.

The survey suggests that only 500 ships have been equipped with scrubbers. There has been something of a backlash against scrubber technology, most notably from Maersk and Klaveness, who have said they see the technology as being expensive and immature.

Other respondents to the ExxonMobil survey said they were concerned that shipping companies would cheat and falsify the sulphur content of their marine fuel.

what mix of fuels will be available in 2020 and at what cost for each type? Refiners have not been so forthcoming with information about what new capacity they are adding to deal with the expected rise in demand. If ship operators do switch to gasoil, they will have to compete with truck drivers and SUV owners to buy the fuel, which could drive up prices and possibly lead to shortages in supply.

Meanwhile, there will be a loophole for shipowners in 2020: vessels will be permitted to sail without compliant fuel if none is available, even if they do not have scrubbers installed.

Panos Zachariadis – Technical Director at Atlantic Bulk Carriers Management Ltd doesn’t believe that the industry is ready either.

“The industry is not ready. And by “industry” I mean mostly the fuel producers, by their own admission. That is the main problem. There were two studies submitted to IMO, one by “industry” including refiners.  Industry said there will be no fuel available by 2020 even if we started preparations and the required investments yesterday. In addition a submission by ISO cautioned about the danger of “designer” fuels.  These were simply ignored.  The majority of IMO member-states wanted favourable news headlines for various reasons (to show the EU that they take action etc). It was a “political” decision.  We have seen before what happens when facts are ignored and political decisions are taken (remember Ballast Water Treatment?)

In short I expect a mess and I’ll be very surprised if this goes smoothly and on schedule.  One possibility I see is that, come 2019, IMO will have to face reality (not enough availability of safe fuel) and re-examine the application date.  One other – unfortunate – possibility is that, since MDO cannot be available in such quantities, untested “designer” fuels will be introduced to fill the void.  Current experience with hybrid (desulfurised) fuels is not good; they are very unstable.  But a further fear is that inappropriate blends may also appear pausing a safety threat!  ISO in its submission to IMO warned that cutting heavy fuel with e.g. naptha may show acceptable flash point limit but still may be explosive!  And there will be no ISO or other quality standards for such “designer” fuels by 2020.”

It seems apparent that the information regarding the switch is causing uncertainty with regards to what the choices will be to make sure that ships are properly equipped to deal with the change. It could be a case that companies are waiting for their competitors to go first so that they can then make an informed decision on the best way to go, but with little over 2 years to go this seems a difficult strategy.  Compliance seems to be something of a grey area, but companies should by now have plans in place to make sure that as of 1st January 2020 they are ready to go.


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