Marine fuels enter an era of increasing regulation
The shipping world has become almost obsessed with the issue of fuel since the IMO decided in 2016 to reduce the global limit of sulphur permitted in fuels to 0.5% with effect from 1 January 2020 and followed up this long-standing rule change by adopting an ambitious plan to reduce shipping’s carbon emissions to zero over the next 50 years.
The 2020 changes will introduce many new regulations and will even make the carriage of non-compliant fuel illegal under normal circumstances except as cargo.
Although the rules are now changing on an international level, it is true to say that ships have long been permitted to choose whichever fuels they wish to operate with provided that they have the backing of the flag state. Most regulation that does exist around fuels and lubricants is aimed at prevention of pollution or controlling emissions rather than being concerned with the product itself. The exception to this is the limit that has existed in SOLAS for some time that marine fuels should have a minimum flashpoint of 60°C.
There are related aspects in SOLAS concerning the fuel system, as might be expected. Fuel quality is always a case of caveat emptor but there are ISO standards which, so long as they are stipulated as part of the purchase contract, will afford the shipowner a degree of protection against damage caused to the engine or the quality of the fuel provided as well as being a defence against possible pollution claims for contravention of MARPOL Annex VI regulations.
On an international level, the IMO deals with various aspects of fuel in both the MARPOL and SOLAS conventions as well as the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage 2001 – ordinarily referred to as the Bunker Convention and in effect from 2008.
Under the Bunker Convention ships over 1,000gt registered in a state that has ratified the convention must carry a certificate certifying that the ship has insurance or other financial security to cover the liability of the owner for pollution damage. The convention defines the owner in such a way as to include others, such as managers, bareboat charterers, operators and beneficial owners. The US is not a party to the convention but under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), ships above 300gt operating in US waters are obliged to be covered by insurance and will be issued a Certificate of Financial Responsibility (COFR) to prove the fact.
Individual nations, states in the US and regional bodies are permitted to make regulations concerning fuels used within their jurisdiction with the EU’s ban on fuels with sulphur levels above 0.1% being used in ports being a prime example. One current area of concern is the Arctic where there are moves in numerous bodies including the IMO and the EU to ban the use of HFO.