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Smooth Sailing for Ships After Historic Fuel Switch

A major switch in maritime fuel aimed at reducing emissions from ships is proceeding smoothly, shipping executives say, with new blends available in most ports and operators reporting few problems adapting to the fuel.

The mandatory change began on Jan. 1, when some 60,000 oceangoing vessels were ordered by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations’ marine regulator, to slash their sulfur emissions by more than 80%. It is the first in a series of environmental steps the maritime industry is due to take in the coming years that will alter operating costs and raise fundamental questions about how ships should be powered.

To comply with the 2016 Paris climate accord, members of the IMO have also agreed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to half of their 2008 level by 2050. Ships now contribute up to 3% of the world’s global air pollution, a share comparable to that of a major country.

Shipping executives say the low-sulfur directive alone will add around $50 billion in new fuel costs over the next three to four years, and they say they plan to pass the expenses on to cargo customers.

Low-sulfur fuel in Singapore, one of the world’s biggest refueling hubs, was quoted this week at an average $670 a ton, 64% higher than the $409 a ton for the heavy oil, known in the maritime sector as bunker, that has long powered ships. Bunkering brokers said the price spread is at least 10% higher than shipowners originally expected, but the gap is expected to narrow over the next couple of months.

“It’s very expensive right now,” a senior broker in Singapore said. “Demand is high and many bunkering barges are still flushing the old fuel from their tanks, meaning not enough is out there and ships are held up longer to refuel.”

Fuel represents up to half of a ship’s operating expenses, and some operators will see their earnings take a hit this year as the cost is absorbed through supply chains.

“If shipping companies take on all the cost, they will collapse,” said Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the IMO, the global marine regulator that mandated the fuel switch. “But compared to the value of the cargo, price increases to consumers will be very small.”

The fears of some shipowners that there wouldn’t be enough low-sulfur fuel availability, or that it wouldn’t work well with maritime engines, so far appear to be unfounded.

“The switch went well and we haven’t experienced issues with performance or fuel availability,” said Ole Graa Jakobsen, head of fleet technology at Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, the world’s largest operator of container ships by capacity. “We have lab-tested a broad range of fuel formulations to determine optimal blends for our vessels.”

Maersk’s French rival CMA CGM SA, which operates more than 500 container ships, said prices vary from port to port, with rates at big European gateways being cheaper.

“There is a wide spectrum of different blends, that may not all be available in some ports in Africa and South America” said Farid Trad, the group’s vice president for oil management. “There is high demand so fuel barges take more time now. The challenge is to get the entire supply chain to work together, from fuel suppliers to refueling barges to shipowners managing their fuel needs.”

Bunkering suppliers say new fuel supplies are short for smaller vessels doing coastal sailings on the east coast of India, the Philippine archipelago and Bangladesh.

“There was not enough preparation in India and new fuel supply is low, especially for small tankers and container ships in the east coast,” said Venkat Argawal, who runs three refueling barges at India’s Port of Chennai.

“Some are breaking the rules and run on heavy oil until supply is restored.”

One of the IMO’s biggest challenges is that member states enforce the new fuel regulations. This week, China caught two ships that were allegedly using noncompliant fuel according to the Standard P&I Club, a major maritime insurer.

“We are monitoring the situation and to date, whilst there have been some reports of tight supply of compliant fuel oil in some markets, so far we have not received reports of any significant issues,” an IMO spokeswoman said.

Some vessel operators, especially tanker owners, have chosen to limit their sulfur emissions with exhaust systems called scrubbers that trap sulfur created by fuel-burning engines.

The systems cost several million dollars, but companies using them could benefit from big operating cost savings in the next few years over carriers that are spending more for new, more expensive low-sulfur fuel.
Source: Wall Street Journal

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