IMO ban on non-compliant 2020 fuel raises new issue

It came as no surprise that the IMO’s Pollution Prevent and Response sub-committee did agree to the many requests from some nation states and shipping industry bodies to ban the carriage of non-compliant fuels at PPR 5 last week.

It could hardly have been otherwise given the dent to the IMO’s reputation caused by delay over the implementation of the ballast water treatment rules and recent attacks on its supposed impartiality.

Even so it would seem that the debate over the issue and the related matter of enforcement of the new limits in 2020 was lengthy and opposing points of view were put and debated upon.

The ban is to be written into the MARPOL regulations by the simple expedient of changing the wording of Regulation 14.1.3 of Annex VI from ‘any fuel oil used on board’ to ‘any fuel carried for use on board’. The wording change still permits ships fitted with scrubbers to use what would otherwise be banned fuel.

Under IMO procedures, the wording change will need to be approved by a full meeting of MEPC before it can be adopted and with it being deemed a matter of urgency this will almost certainly move the matter to MEPC 72 after the IMO has finalised the wording change along with others also agreed at the meeting. It will however be MEPC73 to be held in Autumn this year where the wording change can be first adopted and March 2020 before it can come into force.

There is of course always the possibility that as the deadline draws closer and the availability of compliant fuels becomes clearer, it may be realised that the quantity of available fuel may not be sufficient for all ships to meet the requirement.

It should not be forgotten that at the time the IMO was considering the CE Delft report on availability when determining the 2020 date, BIMCO and others produced a rival report suggesting that availability would be tight and could not be guaranteed.

That position has been echoed by many analysts in the intervening period up to date although in being one of the bodies that pressed for the recent wording change, BIMCO may have changed its view or else recognised that the argument for a transition period would be better postponed until nearer the time.

If it does prove that availability cannot be guaranteed – some 3 million barrels of bunkers per day will be needed to be switched from current standards to the new limit – then a healthy dose of reality will be needed. That could mean a softening attitude by the IMO but more likely it will mean many ships taking advantage of the exemption allowed in the regulations for when compliant fuel is physically not available.

The issue will then become a matter for enforcers to determine appropriate actions which will doubtless not please those that see the ban on carriage of non-compliant fuels as either being necessary for competition purposes or as an environmental imperative. It is highly unlikely that all states will take the same view and many will be quite relaxed about non-compliance of vessels operating in their waters or of vessels under their flags operating further afield.