Low sulfur fuel supply meeting demand, but quality issues remain

Independent analysis has revealed discrepancies when loading fuel certified as 0.5 percent or lower. In some cases, operators found the fuel exceeded the sulfur limit.

While bunker supplies to meet the International Maritime Organization’s 2020 sulfur cap have been adequate so far, there are still concerns in the industry about fuel quality that could lead to compliance and operational issues.

The IMO reported only 55 cases of 0.5 percent fuel being unavailable worldwide in the 12 months after the low sulfur mandate went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. During the first year of implementation, more than 60,000 ships plied the world’s oceans in trade, the IMO reported, so the availability of compliant fuel was seen as a success.

“We had a great deal of preparation during 2019 and before from all stakeholders, and all indications are that there have been no significant issues with the supply of low sulfur fuel oil,” said Roel Hoenders, head of air pollution and energy efficiency at the IMO.

The IMO 2020 regulation reduced the maximum sulfur content of fuel oil from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent, which is expected to significantly reduce the amount of sulfur oxide emitted by ships. Vessel operators in Emission Control Areas, including those in the United States and Canada, have been required to meet a 0.1 percent standard since 2015, but increased demand for compliant fuel raised concerns about supplies and quality.

While the availability of 0.5 percent fuel has been adequate, operators have faced issues with the quality of fuel blends, such as high levels of wax and paraffin and viscosity disparities.

“Just because a fuel meets the IMO sulfur requirement doesn’t mean it’s good to go operationally,” said Kathy Metcalf, president and CEO of the Chamber of Shipping of America (CSA). “The 0.5 percent fuel is blended, and depending upon the location of the refinery, and even in some cases within a refinery and seasonally, the components may vary.”

From January to May 2020, BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping, Intercargo and Intertanko surveyed shoreside vessel operations employees and gleaned 192 responses on their experiences with fuel quality and safety. Sixty-two percent of the respondents reported increased sludge deposits, including increased sludge discharge from the ship’s separators. The next most common complaint, from 32 percent of the respondents, was wax appearance in the fuel oil system. However, 14 percent did not report any off-spec or operational quality issues. 

Due to the nature of the survey, the answers don’t represent a comprehensive view of the problems in the world fleet. Still, the responses provide insight into the industry’s challenges during the early days of the transition, the survey’s authors noted.

While Metcalf hasn’t heard of any cases in which fuel quality caused a vessel power plant to stop operating, off-spec bunkers could cause excessive wear and tear on critical engine components. She cited viscosity variations that require the temperature of the fuel to be adjusted so it’s within the range that operators need.

“When you load your first load of 0.5 percent at a place where you’ve never loaded it before, it requires careful attention by the engineering folks so they don’t have a problem that could lead to a loss of the plant,” Metcalf said.

Operators have faced the dilemma of loading fuel with a bunker delivery note that certified it at 0.5 percent or lower, but an independent analysis indicated the fuel exceeded the sulfur limit. Based on statements by port state control agencies, “the bunker delivery note is the Holy Grail,” Metcalf said. “That’s the document that they’re going to use to make a call as to whether you’re compliant.”

The CSA is advising its members that if they have a post-load analysis that shows noncompliance, they should notify the U.S. Coast Guard and the port where the vessel is headed.

“In a lot of cases the excess is within the margin of error, so the Coast Guard doesn’t do much about it although technically you’re not in compliance,” Metcalf said. “Generally, the Coast Guard notes the situation in the data collection system and the vessel just goes on.”

About 4,000 vessels worldwide have been fitted with exhaust gas cleaning systems and continue to use 3.5 percent fuel, according to Poul Woodall, executive director of the Clean Shipping Alliance 2020, an industry advocacy group for adopting scrubbers. Woodall said that ships using scrubbers and 3.5 percent fuel emit less sulfur on a well-to-wake basis compared to 0.5 percent fuel.

Metcalf estimated that about 30 percent of CSA members use scrubbers, but some countries are banning the discharge of washwater from open-loop scrubber systems. 

“Depending where you’re calling, you may have to carry a tank of the compliant fuel,” she said.

By Professional Mariner Staff