What Is Heavy Fuel Oil, And Why Is It So Controversial? Five Killer Facts
Heavy Fuel Oil has been in the news again over the past 8 days since a Japanese bulk freight carrier on the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius started leaking Heavy Fuel Oil into its crystal clear waters on 6 August 2020.
As the full magnitude of the unfolding disaster in the Indian Ocean becomes clearer, could this be a wake up call to international shipping and lead to bold new changes in maritime laws.
What is Heavy Fuel Oil, and why is it so controversial? Here are five facts.
1.One fuel: many names
The shipping industry is filled with many overlapping and confusing names. Often, the same product is given many names.
Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) is one such example. Let’s break it down.
It is a Fuel Oil. This means that it is the fuel that goes into the engine of a vessel to help with propulsion. It is used for the large ship engines of cargo vessels, bulk carriers of industrial or mining products like iron ore, cruise ships, and even the engine fuel for large oil tankers (though the oil that large oil tankers carry is called Crude Oil that has not yet been refined and is lighter than Heavy Fuel Oil). When all the more refined products have been extracted from Crude Oil. the sticker, tar-like substance with a viscosity similar to a thick black peanut butter is left behind as Heavy Fuel Oil.
It is Heavy. The process to produce oil involves several refining processes where the lighter hydrocarbons are extracted. What is left behind and is a sludge-like residue made from the end of the oil refining process. It is dense (similar in viscosity to peanut butter) and is known to contain a range of toxins that cause multiple health issues. In vessels, Heavy Fuel Oil has to be mixed with lighter fuels like Diesel, to help it float.
Hence the name Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO).
The same product is also known by the technical names as Number 6 Fuel Oil (Bunker C) as well as Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (VLSFO). Names also used interchangeably include Fuel Oil, Heavy Oil, Marine Fuel, Furnace Oil, Marine Heavy Fuel Oil, Bunker Oil, Bunker Fuel.
These are all different names for essentially the same thing – the oil that is carried on board, specifically to power the engine of the ship. It is heavy and it is fuel for the ship’s engine.
A word on units: it is common in oil spills for units to be used interchangeably. The number of gallons (volume) always sounds bigger than the number of metric tons (weight), so it is common to hear reporting of oil spills in metric tons. It is easy to convert from one to the other once the grade of fuel is known.
2. The race to the bottom: why Heavy Fuel Oil is still so widespread
Heavy Fuel Oil became widely used since the 1960s as new refining techniques enabled the higher value add, more refined products from crude oil to be sold into the market. Today it is used by 60% of the approximately 60,000 ocean-bound large vessels in the world, that comprise cargo ships, cruise ships, ferries, oil tankers and bulk carriers – like the one that ran aground in in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
However the reason it is so widely used is because of its price. It is around 30% cheaper than alternatives. One of the reasons for this, critics argue is the lower environmental standards that the international shipping regulator, the London-based International Maritime Organization, for Heavy Fuel Oil. Marine pollution is defined by legislation called Marpol (Maritime Pollution) which standards for emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide and Sulfur Dioxide. These standards have is lower for Heavy Fuel Oil, due to pressure from the global shipping industry.
The lower prices and wide availability of heavy fuel oil has meant that the global shipping industry has grown used to low cost fuels to justify what they say is a marginal business of shipping. Other critics argue that the shipping industry has never invested enough in cleaner alternative technologies.
With Heavy Fuel Oils, they have different grades. It has grades (A to C), with C being the most toxic. This was the grade of the oil released by the Wakashio in the waters of Mauritius.
3. HFOs are highly toxic when dissolved in water and exposed to sunshine
Exposure to Heavy Fuel Oil is toxic to humans and wildlife, and highly polluting to the environment on several dimensions.
Emissions: The ‘war on carbon’ often receives the most attention in the media. Shipping has claimed that they only contribute 3% of global carbon emissions, and so should be exempt from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change given the complexity of accounting for who the carbon emissions should be attributed to between nations and the importance of the shipping industry.
However, with Heavy Fuel Oil, it is not just the carbon emissions that are poisonous. Heavy Fuel Oil is highly concentrated in sulfur (35,000 parts per million). This means global shipping accounts for 8% of global emissions of sulfur dioxide emissions (SO2), which is highly acidic when mixed with water making shipping a major contributor toward acid rain and other respiratory diseases. Another by-product is Nitrogen Oxide, which contributes toward air pollution and respiratory disease. Indeed, in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, there was an observation that there appeared to be a correlation between high levels of Nitrogen Oxide and the spread of coronavirus due to the weakening of the respiratory immune system for those living close to high concentrations of Nitrogen Oxide pollutants. The heavy particulate matter from Nitrogen Oxide can cause serious lung diseases, especially among young children. Particulate Matter emissions from maritime shipping leads to 400,000 early deaths worldwide a year and costs over $50 billion a year in global health costs.
Physical properties: Heavy Fuel Oil is viscous and sticky consistency, making it much harder than crude oil to pump or collect during a spill, often fowling habitats for years. HFOs would be particularly difficult to clean up if spilled in the ocean as HFO doesn’t readily disperse or breakdown in the marine environment and it has a tendency to stick to surfaces like sea ice or sink and emulsify in sea water (rather than floating on the surface or evaporating off). Heavy Fuel Oils also remain longer in cooler waters before they have had the chance to evaporate off, making their presence felt for longer. It is currently Winter time in the Indian Ocean.
Chemical characteristics. Scientists are only just learning the full extent of the ways that Heavy Fuel Oils can be harmful. Chemicals called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAH for short are known to cause cancer and are strongly associated with Heavy Fuel Oil. More worryingly, Heavy Fuel Oil becomes more toxic when exposed to Ultra-Violet (UV) light and can be absorbed by organisms, increasing their mortality. In extreme cases with UV light, these PHA chemicals can cause shells and corals to dissolve in just minutes. One of the most harmful chemicals in this class of chemicals is the formation of a chemistry known as benzene rings, that has a severe impact on human health. Such is the concern about exposing Heavy Fuel Oils to high levels of concentration, that the international regulator will be banning Heavy Fuel Oil from being transported in the high-UV areas of the Arctic. This raises questions as to why such standards banning Heavy Fuel Oil is not applied to the high-UV and fragile ecosystems around the Tropics?
4. Heavy Fuel Oil is at the center of sustainability challenges in the shipping industry
The Paris Agreement on Climate Change to reduce harmful greenhouse gases by 2030 was signed in 2015. The global shipping industry initially exempted itself from the international agreement, but felt increasing pressure from scientists and environmental groups.
This led to a industry-self regulated agreement to reduce emissions by 2050. However, this has been criticized for not having a clear set strategy, accountability framework or progress milestones to check progress toward this target. As a result, very little serious research or effort has taken place by the shipping industry to de-carbonize fuel oils, especially Heavy Fuel Oil.
Given the other harmful impacts of Heavy Fuel Oil, environmental groups forced the international regulators to agree to set of targets in 2015 to reduce sulfur emissions by 2020. However, it is proving particularly challenging to monitor and ensure compliance with these standards, even though some of these emissions can be tracked by satellites.
Hence there has been a track record of the global shipping industry exempting itself from higher standards that the world needs for the environment and a planet of 10 billion.
5. There have been strong calls to regulate vessels transporting Heavy Fuel Oils
The 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska was a landmark moment that created an important change in international shipping safety standards. The Exxon Valdez was a single hull vessel. After the spill, all oil tankers had to be double hulled.
The risk of transport of Heavy Fuel Oils are so well known that world leaders at the G7 remarked that Heavy Fuel Oil is the “the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment.” In their March 2016 joint statement on climate, energy, and Arctic leadership, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau stressed the need to determine “how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.”
However, the transport of Heavy Fuel Oil was exempted from the double-hull regulations and many felt an accident from a single hull freighter carrying a large quantity of Heavy Fuel Oil was an accident waiting to happen.
Heavy Fuel Oil transportation is so controversial, that there are two types of policies to govern international shipping lanes with its use.
The first is a ban. This is what is being looked at for the Arctic, to prevent single hull vessels transporting Heavy Fuel Oil to these pristine environments which has exposure to high UV.
The second is creation of Emission Control Areas (ECAs). These are zones where alternative fuels or a cleaner vessel engine technology called a ‘scrubber’ is used. An important one was created around the English Channel and which the permitted amount of sulfur by 90%.
Questions about the Wakashioa spill
As the world comes to grip with the volume, scale and location of the Heavy Fuel Oil in the pristine waters of the Indian Ocean, several important questions will be asked of the global shipping industry:
If HFOs were not good enough for the Arctic, why was it good enough for the Indian Ocean?
If the risks from single hull transportation of HFOs were known, why was regulation not introduced to ensure only double hulled vessels should be allowed to transport HFOs?
If the world has been rapidly accelerating toward greater sustainability standards with carbon emissions and other pollutants, why did the global shipping industry exempt itself from the Paris Agreement and opt for an industry self-regulated targets, where it is judge, jury and executor to decide how much progress should be made.
Trust has to be earned
Global shipping companies have continued to insist that they are too important an industry to be regulated, and demanded free passage around the oceans. However, as we’ve seen with the Wakashio crash, trust has to be earned.
In this case, deep questions are now being asked whether this trust is merited or whether much stronger supervision is needed.