Fingers crossed over future fuel compatibility and availability

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 26 March 2019


There will be some compatibility problems between very low-sulphur fuel oils (VLSFOs) and “I’m crossing my fingers and hoping,” said Eirik Nyhus, environment director at class society DNV GL.

He was speaking to invited guests in London on Thursday (21 March) and said that the current ISO standard for marine fuels, ISO 8217, does not address compatibility. He said that although that has always been a concern, it “is going to be a bigger issue than it has been before.”


A new standard for fuels that will meet the MARPOL 0.5% sulphur cap that will come into force on 1 January 2020 is expected to be published in Q3 this year and he hopes that shipowners, who “have been able to manage sometimes-substandard fuels before, will continue to be able to manage it. But it will be a challenge.”

Some oil majors have said that they will be releasing their low-sulphur fuels at about the same time as the new standard is published and ShipInsight asked Mr Nyhus what he thought might happen when these fuels – developed before the standard has been finalised – enter the market.

“It is really hard to be definitive on this because some oil majors say they won’t even guarantee their own products from different parts of the world being compatible. Others say that ‘as long as you stay with us you will be getting compatible fuels no matter where you buy them.’ So the messaging is mixed,” he said.

Feedback from DNV GL’s customers has also been mixed. Some “don’t see this as a problem,” he said. “Their experience is so good in managing fuel that they say they will be able to manage, whatever happens.” But “we have others who certainly do not think so.”

Some oil majors have issued information about their plans to make VLSFO available, but ShipInsight is only aware of one – Shell – that has indicated potential compatibility difficulties.

It published a booklet last September that explained that it used its experience of developing 0.1% sulphur fuel for use in ECAs in creating its 0.5% sulphur fuel and that it had “studied over 100 streams and assessed numerous blends” to develop its 0.5% sulphur formulations.” But the booklet warns that, across the market, there will be “large variability in fuel quality, which can impact compatibility and handling of fuel on board vessels.”

Shell conducted trials following an innovative recruitment drive to find owners willing to take part: it launched an online appeal last August, “giving customers an opportunity to test the new fuel to become more familiar with how the fuel performs in their vessels,” Shell’s global sales and marketing manager for marine fuels Melissa Williams said at the time.

In October, Shell listed the ports it will be supplying in a document released during the SIBCON conference in October 2018. Its list is comprehensive, showing that its VLSFO will be available from ports in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, and Singapore, although it does not provide dates for when the fuel will be available at the various locations.

BP Marine announced its plans on 11 March, saying that it is to begin selling VLSFO, although it also did not specify a date when it will become available. ShipInsight has asked for clarification on that point and this item will be updated once that has been confirmed.

It also published a map showing where the fuel will be stocked, which will reassure many of its customers since it shows that its VLSFO will be available at all but one of the locations where it offers high-sulphur fuel and at most locations where it stocks MGO. “BP intends to retail the new 0.5% sulphur VLSFO globally,” its statement said, but whether that will be the situation initially is not clear.

Sea trials had earlier been conducted with fuel supplied in the Amsterdam/Rotterdam/Antwerp region and from its Singapore hub, and the statement quoted BP Marine’s global head, Eddie Gauci, as saying that the company had been “actively working with partners to prepare for its introduction.”

It is not offering just a single-specification fuel: BP’s statement referred to “a full range of MARPOL-compliant marine fuels” and said that BP’s refineries have made a number of configuration changes to support their segregation, handling and storage.

It is nearly a year since ExxonMobil revealed initial locations for its 2020-compliant fuels and it has now confirmed a timetable for their introduction. Its original announcement also said that its new suite of compliant fuels will include both residual and distillate grades that had been developed using patented technology to identify potential compatibility issues, the company’s marine fuels venture manager Luca Volta said at the time.

Now he has announced a timetable. “We will be ready with the products and point of sales by the third quarter of 2019,” he told the US business publication Forbes on 13 March on the sidelines of the energy conference CERAWeek, run by IHS Markit. “That’s when we expect marine customers will start to bunker.”

He also updated ExxonMobil’s initial list of supply ports, which will include Singapore where its largest manufacturing plant is sited. Other ports in the first wave will be Antwerp, Rotterdam, Genoa, Marseilles, Laem Chabang and Hong Kong. North American locations will follow, he said.

Alongside their change to new fuels, shipowners will also have to adapt to new ways of buying their bunkers, according to Alok Sharma, senior vice president for business development at the fuel management software provider Inatech.

Mr Sharma believes that, once VLSFO becomes available, the way bunkers will be bought will have to adopt the techniques used in the oil sector. No longer will bunker fuel simply be a refinery’s left-overs; they will be a higher quality and more expensive product, which will require a different approach to buying them and will attract traders with skills gained from the oil markets.

He told ShipInsight that, in response, shipowners and operators must review the resources they need, in terms of their people, their data and their analysis tools to be able to compete in this new market. There will be winners and losers, he said, but overall he is optimistic: “On the whole, I believe they are getting prepared. This time last year there were a lot of ‘unknown unknowns’ and now I think they have become ‘known unknowns’, so there is progress.”

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