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On our Forum: Beware of non-compliant marine fuels…

By Michael Grey*

You would almost think that it is a seasonal phenomenon, these regular warnings about ships’ machinery grinding to a standstill on account of something nasty having been introduced into the bunker tanks. The consequences of off-spec or non-compliant fuel are generally dire, ranging from wrecked machinery, to expensive operations to purge the system and rid the ship of the filthy stuff, which never should have been aboard in the first place, if the proper precautions had been taken. And it might be that the “non-compliance” involves illegality, which beside the above, could see the owner and the Master (why the Master of a ship is responsible for bunker specifications is one of the mysteries of the sea) heavily fined by a wrathful flag state, whose inspectors have detected the problem.

The latest warning, in the shape of a report from Lloyd’s Register and their specialist consultants Thetius, put some numbers into the public domain. The report suggests that no less than 1m tonnes of off-spec and non-compliant fuel are detected every year; a pretty staggering quantity. I always like to think of these numbers in units which can be easily grasped, and that’s four VLCCs full of the stuff, if you like, which is said to cost ship operators between $27,000 and $50,000 per incident. And what about the ones which got away?

Is this a problem which is getting worse, or is it that with a greater emphasis upon inspections to ensure compliance with more onerous fuel regulations, brought about by emission criteria, there is just more of it being picked up? And it is worth putting the problem into perspective, in a time of changing regulations, increasing focus upon fuel quality and against the millions of tons of maritime fuels that are annually consumed by the world fleet.

But whatever is the answer to these questions, there is no escaping from the fact that the quality of marine fuel is generally far less assured than practically any other. One can be reasonably sure that somebody running a power station, or other large fuel consuming machinery, will not put up with the sort of louche performance standards in the supply of fuel routinely put up with by ships’ chief engineers. And a supplier of off spec fuel to the motor trades or aviation wouldn’t last long in the business.

You might say that ships – here today and gone tomorrow – are natural victims of sharp practice – there are plenty of stories from years ago about even coal being so poor that the steam pressure could not be maintained. Perhaps the “culture” which presided over shale and stones masquerading as useful fuel just never really changed when oil came along.

Charterers looking for cheap fuel

It is probably also a fact that in so many cases it is the charterer, rather than the owner, who is responsible for the bunkers, is looking for a cheap deal, and may only be vaguely interested in the quality of what is supplied. Moreover, even though there are these regular warnings and stern invocations to test fuel taken aboard before it is ever let near the machinery, it will be invariably to the owner’s account.

There are excellent and highly reputable fuel testing services available all around the world, so if everyone could be persuaded to use them, you would think that this problem would disappear. In these columns we have pointed to companies which have been put on this earth precisely to test and track fuel all the way from its refinery to the ship, able to detect every possible impurity. But there will always be some bean counter, or chancer, who will veto their employment, leaving the quality, or specification in the lap of the Gods, who are not always smiling.

You could also argue that if the industry is to embrace some of these exciting new fuels, like methanol or ammonia, there will need to be new levels of precision and expertise in their handling, to provide both safety and quality assurance. It seems to be the preferred strategy of designers to place the fuel tanks containing these “future fuels” on the weather deck, rather than below. One doubts whether anyone has consulted the seafarers who will sail on these emission-free ships, but one proposed design for a large bulk carrier that is current shows an enormous tank of ammonia each side of the accommodation. It rather spoils the view, although their near neighbours may have other thoughts.

(Dreamstime photo of Maersk vessel with bunkering tanker alongside)

*Michael Grey is former editor of Lloyd’s List. This column is published with the kind permission of The Maritime Advocate.