Post-2020 fuel problems could put ships in life-and-death’ situations

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 14 November 2018


Fuel compatibility problems after the 2020 sulphur cap comes into effect could leave ships in “a life-and-death situation in the middle of the ocean”, warned Anna Ziou, policy director on safety and the environment at the UK Chamber of Shipping.

She was speaking last week (8 November) at an industry briefing in London that brought together organisations involved in making, fitting, approving and using scrubbers and ballast water management systems and she told the invited audience that there were safety concerns about low-sulphur replacements for HFO.

Anna Ziou, Policy Director on Safety and the Environment at the UK Chamber of Shipping

Shipping is probably “the only industry [in which] the supply chain is not properly regulated,” she said, so when a shipowner buys fuel “you don’t know what you are getting. You just find out in the middle of the ocean [that the] fuel is unsafe to be used.”

Her point was reinforced by another speaker, Per Holmvang, environmental technology advisor at class society DNV GL, who referred to what he called “the Houston case”, in which about 200 engines suffered fuel-related failures earlier this year because their fuel pumps suffered sticking and seizures. All the ships involved had loaded bunkers in the Houston area.

An investigation into the problem is still continuing but it appears that the fuel included untreated shale oil and other contaminants that are not acceptable under the International Organisation For Standardisation’s (ISO’s) fuel standard ISO 8217, he said. In June, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS; formerly DNV Petroleum Services) published a note about its investigation into the event in which it reported that “the standard test methods within the ISO 8217 specification gave no clues to the underlying problem.” At least one P&I club – the Steamship Mutual – warned its members in July about the problem.

Per Holmvang, Environmental Technology Advisor at class society DNV GL

Mr Holmvang confirmed the difficulties in investigating these incidents because “sophisticated gas chromatography and mass spectrometry analysis is required to figure out the details of these fuels.” He added that the investigation has shown that “there are big variations in analysis depending on the procedures being applied and the competence and experience of the laboratories.”

That case involved fuels that do not meet the ISO specification, but Ms Ziou is concerned that low-sulphur fuels that do meet the spec will also give problems. She said fuel suppliers had advised a gathering held by the chamber two days earlier that two fuels that fully complied with the ISO standard could become unsafe to use when they are mixed together.

A joint industry project is developing an industry guidance document, and possibly training materials, on the potential safety and operational issues related to the supply and use of 0.5% sulphur fuels, she said.

A paper about that project was presented to MEPC 73 last month (paper MEPC 73/5/17, which is available via the IMO DOCS website) which said that the project’s members expect to submit a first draft to IMO’s Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR 6) in February 2019. Final guidance will not be ready until mid-2019, giving the industry only about six months to fully understand the fuels and train ships’ crews. “In my view, there is not enough time for us to prepare,” Ms Ziou said.

That paper also suggested advising IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of this work (PPR is a subcommittee of the Marine Environment Protection Committee) because, Ms Ziou said, MSC is a more appropriate body to deal with these concerns about fuel safety. She told the gathering that a paper has been submitted to MSC 100 – due to take place 3-7 December – that makes this point.

It is document MSC 100/8/1 and access to it on IMO DOCS is restricted to delegates until after the meeting, but one of its co-authors, the International Chamber of Shipping, has made it available in advance on its website. It proposes that IMO should review MARPOL “to identify those requirements which are concerned with safety” and either develop “a mechanism to assign responsibility for these provisions to the MSC or [make] appropriate regulatory amendments to incorporate these provisions within the SOLAS Convention.” Either of these actions “would separate fuel oil safety from emissions to air,” the paper says.

Compatibility problems between multiple fuels are not the only fuel concerns facing shipowners: stability of an individual fuel is also a concern, Mr Holmvang said. He is a member of the ISO working group that is reviewing ISO 8217 – with 80 members from 18 countries, it is a particularly large group. He confirmed that the current standard does not cover 0.5% sulphur “for the simple reason that these new fuels are not available in the market so no one knows what they are.”

As an interim solution, ISO is planning to issue what it calls a publically available specification (PAS) that will ensure consistency between ISO 8217 and the implementation of the sulphur cap in 2020 and to categorise low-sulphur fuels within the standard, he said. It will also address potential onboard handling, operational and safety issues. Only once the PAS has been published will ISO 8217 be reviewed, with a new version expected in 2022.

In the meantime, ISO has commissioned an extensive test programme to obtain more robust and consistent information on fuel stability and instability, Mr Holmvang said. These tests will use samples of 48 blending components supplied by refineries to simulate these new fuels. “With all these new potential components coming out of refineries … it will be interesting to see what these new fuels will consist of and how they will evolve,” he said.

One objective is to find better alternatives to sediment tests that are currently in use but the test results and the eventual new standard will not solve the compatibility problems that Ms Ziou described. Like the exiting standard, it will be used when purchasing fuel. “It is not intended for operational purposes,” Mr Holmvang said, describing compatibility as “the big question mark” over future fuels.

A fuel can be stable on its own, he said, but if you mix a blend bought in, say, from Rotterdam with another from, for example, Singapore, “it may precipitate sludge”. One option would be to use segregated fuel tanks, but most ships do not have enough tank capacity to do that, “so they are forced to mix these fuels. That is a headache,” he told last week’s meeting.

Speaking later to ShipInsight, he said that it is not technically possible to create a specification that would ensure compatibility between different ISO-compliant batches of fuel and the experiments are not addressing that problem.

They began ‘this autumn” Mr Holmvang said, and their focus on stability is to ensure that a particular batch of fuel will not, for example, separate out and create asphaltenic sludge that could block the fuel handling equipment and result in no fuel reaching the engine. “Stability is critical,” he said.

Incompatibility between batches is not a new problem, however, and marine engineers have learned to deal with it by, for example, “having some rules of thumb for mixing fuels [and] reducing the volume in the tank before filling up with new fuel,” he said. It is not yet clear whether the same practical solutions will work with the new low-sulphur fuels, “because we don’t know what they will contain … or whether they will be more or less vulnerable to compatibility issues,” he said.

Do you have concerns about stability and compatibility of future low-sulphur fuels? What plans do you have in place to address them? Email Paul Gunton with your comments.

The Journal

Published every February the journal is now recognised as the highest quality publication that covers all aspects of maritime technology and regulation and a must read for the industry.

More Details