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IMO claims sulphur switch smoother than anticipated

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One year on from the 2020 sulphur cap reducing permitted levels in fuels to 0.5% from 3.5%, the IMO has said there have been few problems and availability of compliant fuels has proved resilient.

“Through 2020, just 55 cases of 0.50% compliant fuel being unavailable had been reported in IMO’s Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS),” said Roel Hoenders, Head of Air Pollution and Energy Efficiency at IMO. “Given that more than 60,000 ships plied the world’s oceans in trade last year, this was a remarkably low percentage of ships encountering difficulty in obtaining compliant fuel. 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 supply of low sulphur fuel oil.”

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, cargo-carrying ships have continued to deliver goods and commodities, including essential foods and medicines, around the world and the introduction and implementation of IMO 2020 did not cause any disruptions in trade.

Compliant fuels include very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) and marine gas oil (MGO). Some ships limit their air pollutants by installing exhaust gas cleaning systems, also known as “scrubbers”. This is accepted under the MARPOL Convention as an alternative means to meet the sulphur limit requirement. Over 2,350 systems have formally been reported to the IMO as an approved “equivalent method” by flag States. Ships can also have engines which are able to use different fuels, such as LNG or biofuels.

The majority of ships trading worldwide switched from using heavy fuel oil (HFO) to using VLSFO. Generally speaking, these are new blends of fuel oil, produced by refineries to meet the new limit, in accordance with IMO guidance and ISO standards. Guidance issued by IMO on dealing with the new fuel blends in advance of the new requirement addressed implications of switching to VLSFO, including assessing and managing risks and highlighting potential safety risks, so that the risks can be mitigated.

Through 2020, and into 2021 to date, the IMO says it has not received any reports of safety issues linked to VLSFO. Nonetheless, during 2020, an IMO correspondence group considered fuel oil safety issues in general and the need for further mandatory requirements to ensure fuel oil supplied meets the required standards and quality. The report of the group (MSC 102/6) is available on IMODOCS and will be discussed at MSC 103 in May 2021.

Prior to that, the eighth session of the Sub-Committee on Prevention of Pollution from Ships (PPR 8), scheduled to meet remotely from 22 to 26 March 2021, will further consider VLSFO fuel quality issues, including possible effects on black carbon emissions.

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