When next year’s sulphur cap bites, fuel oil non-availability reports could help shipowners in a way that IMO member states have yet to consider
When next year’s sulphur cap bites, fuel oil non-availability reports (FONARs) could help shipowners in a way that IMO member states have yet to consider.
IMO’s Pollution Prevention and Response sub-committee meeting two weeks ago agreed to extend the use of FONARs. If accepted by the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in May, ships will be able to file them when there is effectively, not just literally, no compliant fuel available.
It is a crucial distinction, meaning that ship operators are not forced to bunker compliant fuel that could cause safety or operational concerns. Such scenarios are likely, especially in the early days of the new sulphur rules. There is widespread concern that the composition of 0.5% sulphur fuel blends will vary across suppliers and ports, making compatibility challenging.
Bunkering distillate fuel – expected to represent 55% of global marine fuel demand next year by pricing research agency Argus Media - could also be a problem for some ships. Without the higher-pressure pumps, filters and cooling equipment needed to handle low-viscosity fuels, marine gas oil (MGO) could pose a risk to fuel systems designed for thicker, residual fuels.
While the extended use of FONARs makes sense, it is also controversial. It could provide a potential escape for ship operators who have not taken reasonable steps to ensure compliance. Should a shipowner be able to write a FONAR if they could have invested in the capability of burning MGO, for example, or if they could have checked for compatible fuel before arriving in port but failed to do so?
The judgement of port state control remains the trump card. Local authorities will not blindly accept FONARs as a way to avoid sanctions. They will want clear proof, ideally verified by a third party, that the compliant fuel available cannot be used. Authorities should be empowered to test those claims by checking for previous reliance on FONARs, as well as comparing other vessels on the same voyage.
There is perhaps another way in which FONARs could help address the challenges of the new fuel regime. If the operational and safety concerns expressed on FONARs are systematically logged, monitored and analysed, that data will become a valuable resource for tackling fuel problems.
The extended application of FONARs is intended to protect shipowners and operators from unwarranted penalties in circumstances beyond their control. That will be invaluable. But MEPC should not miss the opportunity to explore how FONARs could help solve those very problems.