Better standards are needed for setting standards

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 26 July 2019


My comments last month discussing remarks made about scrubbers by the former chief executive of tanker operator Euronav Paddy Rogers and others at a seminar organised by the UK Chamber of Shipping prompted a couple of interesting responses. I have since exchanged emails with my correspondents, one of whom argued that oil refiners have no interest in producing high-sulphur fuel in the long term and I gave his views an airing a few days ago.

I included an invitation at the end of that commentary for readers to offer a similarly reasoned justification for believing that there will be supplies of fuel suitable for scrubber-equipped ships but I have not yet had any response to that opportunity; if you would like to offer one, click on the link at the end of that article.

My other correspondent was Mark Sales, an independent consultant who has worked for the US Coast Guard, has served on seismic, supply, and research vessels and done much else besides. He has taken a particular interest in regulatory matters and recently completed a Masters in public policy, so he is well placed to comment on international treaties and how the United Nations network operates.

I had said in my commentary that Mr Rogers’ arguments against scrubbers and the points made by other speakers at the seminar ran along ‘skew lines’: both their lines of reasoning were valid but had no point of intersection.

“Your skew line comments are well taken,” Mr Sales said, and applied their logic to IMO’s rule-making. Mr Rogers had offered his views about why IMO had accepted that scrubbing sulphur from exhaust was an acceptable alternative to using low-sulphur fuel. That option was not part of Marpol Annex VI when it first came into force and Mr Rogers believes IMO agreed to include it to avoid shipowners facing the sort of commercial difficulties they had endured when double hulls were imposed on tankers after Exxon Valdez.

Mr Sales thinks this reflects IMO’s approach to setting standards when compared with that taken by the industry: they follow skew lines. IMO looks at political checks and balances while shipping looks for evidence-based requirements. And not a lot of people know that: “The maritime industry has for too long taken the regulations from IMO to be written from some kind of technical expert knowledge,” he said.

This is a process that IMO inherited, he implied. With a nod to Mr Rogers’ new job as director at the UK’s Royal Museums Greenwich, which includes responsibility for a particularly well known historic vessel, “since the Cutty Sark, maritime technology has reflected hand-me-downs from terrestrial transportation modes.” In fact, “most of Marpol Annex VI is based on terrestrial assumptions,” Mr Sales said.

In general, he believes that “railroad and trucking strictures” are often applied to maritime regulation. Why? “It can only be that that is all regulators can recognise,” he suggested. “No wonder the proposed solutions are so cumbersome and irrational.” If any terrestrial comparisons are relevant, they should be made with power plants, he said.

“Shipping requires its own solutions,” he said. Instead, we get “some office-bound bureaucrat’s kneejerk solution.” What particularly concerns him “is the lack of general appreciation for ‘industry’ standards when compared to ISO.” In his view, “there seems to be a general disrespect at IMO for crew-company or maritime association-developed standards among the lawyer elites that form most of the member state delegations.”

He believes that “industry needs to approach the regulatory process with more scepticism and spend some time, in advance of these regulatory projects, to [develop] more holistic maritime fixes.” As an example of what he means, he described a potential solution to both carbon emissions from ships and bugs in ballast: capture the carbon exhaust in a ship’s ballast water. Some engine modifications would be needed, such as fitting a nitrogen-removal system and modifying its combustion-chamber, but the benefit would be that, in ports with nearby depleted oil wells, “pressurised ballast could be disposed of down those wells.”

This scheme is being piloted in Norway and has the potential to be carbon-negative “if the nitrogen removal process retained the atmospheric CO2 in the supply to the combustion chamber,” he said.

I do not think this is practical. Most ports are not handily located next to an old oil well so it would be a brave shipowner on a very dedicated route who would rely on this solution for its ballast treatment or for IMO to see this as a solution to its long-term carbon emission goals.

Nor do not completely share Mr Sales’ views on IMO’s regulatory process. For example, I believe that IMO takes IACS’ technical expertise seriously – which comes, of course, from an industry body – but I have also seen frustration from shipowner groups when IMO delegates take a perverse view of technical realities during their debates.

But I do agree with Mr Sales’ basic premise: that regulations should be based on relevant standards and should reflect operational realities. Where we differ is that he sees the problem as deep-seated and systemic while I see it as more superficial and sporadic. What do you think? Is there a problem here and, if there is, how serious is it and how should it be solved? Email me with your views now.

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