Are scrubbers so bad?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

06 October 2017

There has been something of a debate on online news services this week over whether scrubbers are a good or bad thing.

The debate was sparked by first Maersk and later Klaveness stating that they see the technology as expensive and immature. As far as both companies are concerned this is hardly a change in position.

Almost a year ago, Lasse Kristoffersen, CEO at Torvald Klaveness said almost exactly the same thing on the company’s blog describing scrubbers as a rather costly (some $2-4 Mn) investment and for now an immature technology. Predictably, scrubber makers have retaliated saying the comments against scrubbers are not justified.

There is no doubt that a scrubber will be an expensive investment and it may not be the right choice for all operators but unlike ballast treatment where the effectiveness of treatment is beyond the skills of most mariners to determine, a scrubber’s effectiveness is easily measured using equipment that in some cases may already be on board. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for the poor performance of some ballast treatment systems but little has been said against scrubbers and many owners do appear to be repeat ordering after having trialled the technology.

The big unknown in meeting the 2020 cap is really what mix of fuels will be available and at what cost for each type. It is possible that early adopters of scrubber technology will have recouped all their outlay if the ships fitted have traded extensively in ECAs before the 2020 cap becomes effective. It is even possible that some may still have a chance to do that even at this late stage before 2020 if the price of distillate fuels rises appreciably over the next 26 months.

So what may have prompted the criticisms of scrubbers?

Maersk’s position of preferring alternative fuels is well known having invested time and effort in trials of numerous options. It is likely that their choice will be along this route and they may well have used their sheer size as an operator to secure supplies of compliant fuel well in advance of the cap coming into force.

As for Klaveness, perhaps a clue lies in another entry on the company blog, this time by Torodd Eeg-Olsen, Head of Risk Management who on 28 Oct penned a piece entitled Act now to manage fuel price risk associated with the 2020 Sulphur cap. Using hedging and bunker adjustment factors (BAF) wisely will play a role but just as important is the need to educate shippers and receivers of the effect on freight rates and to prepare future contracts accordingly.

Every operator will have a different take on the best options for their fleets and that may or may not involve scrubbers. One thing that would make scrubbers more attractive is if government subsidies could be made available in the same way as is being done for establishing LNG infrastructures or funding construction of autonomous ships.

Alternatively, scrubber makers could find ways to make ‘pay as you scrub’ possible as a small number have done.