Nearly a year into IMO’s cap on sulphur levels in maritime fuels, panellists at Riviera’s Maritime Air Pollution Europe conference discussed missed opportunities and gains still to be found
Discussing marine fuels during the virtual conference, ExxonMobil marine fuels technical advisor Armelle Breneol focused on the importance of the supply chain in combustion quality.
“There is a difference between being burnt and being burnt well,” she said. “Vessel owners, operators and fuel purchasing teams are highly recommended to question their suppliers on the fuel that is being delivered, as a difference in fuel quality will mean a difference in an engine’s overall performance.”
Ms Breneol explained that while the manufacturing process remains key, the supply chain should not be underestimated. “All along the supply chain, from the refinery, the terminal loading tank, via the barge, and on to the receiving vessel’s storage tank, there is a lot of potential for contamination or mixing that could have a negative consequence on the fuel.”
This makes choosing the supplier even more important, said Ms Breneol, stressing the need for owners to “know the supplier and understand their logistics.”
Emphasising the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on marine fuels, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) group commercial and business development director Steve Bee flagged up the increased occurrence of flashpoint issues.
“Due to the reduced demand for more volatile road and aviation fuels, there has been a surplus of these fuels at a relatively lower cost,” he explained. “These fuels were therefore available as marine fuel blends. Between April and July of this year, we saw elevated flashpoint off-specs in MGO, probably due to road and aviation fuels – which are more volatile than MGO – being blended into marine distillates.”
Returning to the subject of IMO’s sulphur cap, Mr Bee also highlighted the very rapid adoption of very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) in the early weeks of the year, which “far outweighed the anticipated increase in demand for MGO,” he said.
“The latest figures show 65% of samples received by VPS are VLSFO,” continued Mr Bee. “We have not seen an increase in MGO demand, which currently equates to 12% of all VPS samples received. However, since February, we have seen a month-on-month increase in high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO) demand, resulting in a 43% growth, and currently, HSFO samples equate to 21% of all VPS samples.”
Mr Bee attributed the uptick in HSFO use to the growing adoption and utilisation of scrubbers across the fleet.
"All along the supply chain there is a lot of potential for contamination"
On the subject of off-spec fuel samples, Bureau Veritas VeriFuel global head Charlotte Røjgaard explained that initial problems in this area were now being resolved.
“Some ports, like Antwerp and Busan, had rather high numbers of off-spec fuels in Q1, with 13% and 11% respectively, but the suppliers in these ports seem to have overcome the teething issues and the number of off-spec results has now fallen to 2% and 0%,” respectively, she said.
Ms Røjgaard said that when considering samples that exceeded spec limits it is important to note whether they fall within the 95% confidence interval, and therefore cannot be deemed off-spec as per ISO 4259.
“11 to 12% of samples tested in January exceeded the spec limit, with 4% being off-spec,” she said. “This is the highest number in 2020 and shows the supply industry is finally adjusting to the new requirements.”
After January, said Ms Røjgaard, the picture becomes more stable, with 5% to 7% of fuels exceeding spec limits in Q2 and 3% to 5% exceeding the limits in Q3.
“September saw just 1% of fuels being off-spec globally,” she added.
Continuing on the theme of fuel quality, Intertek Lintec global technical manager Tracy Wardell said “Post January 2020, ultra low sulphur oil use has remained consistent at around the 40% mark. High sulphur fuel oil now accounts for only about 5%, mainly those vessels fitted with scrubbers.”
She continued “If we compare the qualitative trends for ultra low sulphur gas oil and VLSFO over the last year, we can see that in Q3 2019, when VLSFO first entered the market, we saw a high proportion of off-spec VLSFO, as you would expect.”
Things have rapidly improved over 2020, Ms Wardell said, noting the percentage of project samples is now comparable between VLSFO and gas oil. Differences remain however, and Ms Wardell pointed to various issues underlying sludge deposition, fuel instability and chemical contamination as critical areas in need of industry attention.