Failure to identify sources of contaminated fuel puts pressure on testing regimes and calls for new testing services, writes Selwyn Parker
Earlier this year an incident involving contaminated fuel in the US Gulf quickly spread, affecting nearly 100 vessels at last count. The International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA) states that testing laboratories have identified the problematic fuel was probably high sulphur sold as an RMG380 grade under the ISO 8217 specifications. Technically speaking, this is typically the 2005, 2010 or 2012 edition of the standard.
Those shipowners affected by the contaminated fuel are now gathering evidence to present to insurers and courts in pursuit of commercial settlements.
The unfortunate matter underlines the importance of good practice throughout the bunkering and shipping industries, particularly as the 2020 deadline for very low sulphur fuels nears. The industry is already fearful about the quality of 0.50% fuel blends, as Unni Einemo, a member of the IBIA’s secretariat and a specialist in bunkering explained: “Many have predicted that contamination cases like the one seen in the US Gulf and beyond during the spring and summer of 2018 are going to get much more frequent due to blending to ensure sulphur limit compliance,” she told Bunkerworld in October. She added that there may be thousands of unspecified potential contaminants capable of compromising fuels.
That is not good news for shipowners, even though, as Ms Einemo noted, the issue comes down to suppliers. “What we can say is this: all suppliers selling product to meet ISO 8217 have a duty to test those cargoes in advance,” she said, citing the IBIA’s Best practice guidance for suppliers for assuring the quality of bunkers delivered to ships.
The long-term solution, according to the IBIA, is the development of a “globally consistent method and protocol”. However, that looks to be some way off for the time being.
Meantime the regulations are clear and place the onus of responsibility on the supply chain to provide uncompromised fuel. The obligation is defined in Annex B of ISO 8217 which points out the impracticability of carrying out chemical analysis and states the expectation that the fuel complies with the requirements of Clause 5.2 before it is bunkered: it must be “free from any material at a concentration that causes the fuel to be unacceptable for use in accordance with Clause 1.” This clause says that the material should not be present “at a concentration that is harmful to personnel, jeopardises the safety of the ship, or adversely affects the performance of the machinery.”
It is unlikely that issues with bunker fuels will suddenly stop after the switch to lower-sulphur fuels in 2020. There is widespread concern in the shipping and bunker industries that some of the new, low-emission blends will prove incompatible if they are brought into contact with each other, accidentally or otherwise.
As Bureau Veritas global technical manager for marine fuel services Charlotte Rojgaard told Platts: “Compatibility is a known issue. It exists today and will exist after 2020. Very low sulphur fuel oils (VLSFOs) will need to be handled with similar care to [fuels] today.”
“All suppliers selling product to meet ISO 8217 have a duty to test those cargoes in advance”
Post 2020 it is expected that new blends of marine fuel will be supplied in two main types: paraffinic and aromatic. According to Platts, paraffinic fuels will have a higher pour point that will require them to be heated in colder climates.
“Mixing a paraffinic and an aromatic product is not a very good idea as you run the risk of an incompatible product,” Ms Rojgaard told Platts, pointing out that the same risk applies when mixing two of the current high-sulphur fuels.
As concerns grow, oil companies are now increasing their involvement in the issue. ExxonMobil has announced that it expects all of its VLSFO blends will be compatible with each other. In late October, the oil and gas major’s new US$2Bn refinery at Antwerp started converting heavy fuel oil into 2020-compliant marine fuel, pumping it out at a rate of 50,000 barrels a day in anticipation of a sharp spike in demand.
“The Antwerp refinery…increases our ability to deliver larger quantities of cleaner, higher-value fuels to European customers,” said the president of ExxonMobil’s fuel and lubricants company, Bryan W. Milton.
ExxonMobil is also expanding a plant in Rotterdam that will upgrade heavier hydrocarbon by-products into ultra-low sulphur diesel.
Despite the concerns of the shipowning community, the oil companies themselves appear confident that the integrity of their marine fuels will not be compromised. BP promised in September that it would be able to deliver a range of products that would meet the requirements for ships’ fuels, including high-sulphur fuel oil for ships fitted with scrubbers, VLSFO with a maximum sulphur content of 0.50%, and marine gas oil (MGO) with a maximum sulphur content of 0.10%, suitable for the stricter environmental regions such as the Norwegian fjords.
“BP has quality assurances in place to make sure that its products meet the requirements of ISO 8217 and are aligned with standard grade names,” the company reported. In a reassuring move designed to help shipowners work with the fuel, BP will make VLSFO products available during 2019.
Crews to step up
But, as BP points out, shipowners and enginerooms must also do their bit to support a smooth transition. Some fuels may be incompatible if mixed on board ship the group warns, while crews should be sure to segregate bunker stems on board “and minimise their mixing throughout the fuel system in line with standard operating procedures”. BP also cites the risk of incompatibility when mixing distillate and residual fuels.
Still, after all the problems with contaminants, it will come as some relief that in the new low-sulphur era, problems associated with cat fines – a by-product of catalysts used in the refining process – are likely to decline. At present residual products, slurry and light-cycle oil, are used to reduce the viscosity – a cause of cat fines – before they are bunkered. But, explains Platts, many of the new VLSFO blends are likely to be less viscous and dense than today’s fuels, which should make them less susceptible to cat fines.
Whatever the cause of the contaminated fuel loaded at Houston and elsewhere – similar issues were reported by ships lifting bunker fuel in Panama and Singapore as late as July – the episode puts pressure on the bunkering industry to maintain the highest possible standards of quality control. According to The International Council on Combustion Engines (CIMAC), one possible cause may involve cross-contamination due to a new product cargo being loaded into multi-purpose storage tanks that were not properly emptied and cleared.
It may be little comfort to shipowners whose vessels stopped dead in mid-ocean, but the IBIA has not found any evidence of malpractice or negligence by specific companies. Also, the IBIA is adamant that the contamination cases “are completely unrelated to low-sulphur fuel oil blending.”
The shock of widespread contaminated fuel has spurred the fuel-testing industry into overdrive, ahead of the new regulations. US testing firm Core Laboratories now offers a service that promises to safeguard the quantity and quality of fuels loaded from ports anywhere in the world, while France-based certification agency Bureau Veritas has proposed a new testing programme known as VeriFuel that aims to “set the future benchmark in marine fuel testing”. This service would see VeriFuel experts on the ground, checking the integrity of the product on the suppliers’ premises before it is lifted.
With just over a year remaining before the new regulations apply, that is the level of confidence-inspiring commitment that shipowners require.