Will IMO’s impending sulphur cap be shipping’s Black Death some have hyped it to be or will it instead be its Millennium Bug – an easily handled and quickly forgotten anomaly?
Will IMO’s impending sulphur cap be shipping’s Black Death some have hyped it to be, with technical hurdles and the extra cost of compliance wiping out vast swathes of unprepared shipowners? Or will it instead be its Millennium Bug – a source of widespread panic up until the last minute, but ultimately an easily handled and quickly forgotten anomaly?
There was evidence for both perspectives at Riviera Maritime Media’s Sulphur Cap 2020 Conference last month, when more than 200 delegates gathered in Amsterdam to consider shipping’s preparedness from little more than six months away. The level of shipowner experimentation highlighted in exclusive market research commissioned by Riviera of those planning to use compliant fuel oil – and 60% had also installed at least one scrubber – indicates a degree of uncertainty that was reflected in discussions across the event.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the field of scrubbers, the subject of nearly a full day of dialogue at the conference, which was supported by both the Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems Association and Clean Shipping Alliance 2020. Several questions from the audience asked about the environmental foundation of scrubbers – to the exasperation of campaigners who have been trying to purge regulators and ports of the same concerns. But there were other genuine worries about the regulatory framework, service standards and retrofitting timeframes relating to scrubbers.
There were positive messages for the large majority of shipowners planning to comply with 0.5% sulphur fuel. The stability concerns and compatibility issues that have been predicted for new very low-sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) blends may not be as substantial as feared, according to the results of preliminary studies by fuel testing agency VeriFuel and oil refiners’ association Concawe. Those studies, which will feed into a publicly available standard to be published by ISO, are promising. But availability and VSFO pricing remain shrouded in mystery with months until they will be needed on a permanent basis.
It is easy to say that the global sulphur cap will have a limited impact, especially considering the even bigger fuel challenges shipping faces after 2020. But each compliance option will have dramatic implications for the way ships are managed and operated. Choose wrongly and owners will be at least at an economic disadvantage, if not putting the safe operation of their ships in jeopardy.
As the last minutes of 1999 ticked away, business owners who had thoroughly investigated Y2K knew they had nothing to fear as the calendar flipped over to 2000. Shipowners eyeing 2020 can put themselves in the same position if they prepare with diligence. The impact may be insignificant – scrubbers could work perfectly in a sensible regulatory regime, VLSFO may be available widely and cheaply, with limited impact on technical operation. But it would be a brave owner that did not act now to safeguard their business.