The IMO is on its way to ban ships from carrying fuel oil onboard that they cannot legally use. The move has been welcomed by lobby groups and shipowner groups alike, but while a ban is one thing, enforcing it is of course another.
When January 1, 2020 comes around all vessels operating in waters outside an emission control area have to use fuel that has a sulphur content of less than 0.5%. Vessels sailing in an ECA and in European ports need to use fuels with a sulphur content of less than 0.1%.
The ECA compliant fuel is a distillate, a refined product, and is available in most bunker ports, while marine fuel with 0.5% or less sulphur in it, will, most likely, be a blend of fuels with a higher sulphur content and the low sulphur distillate. There are some regional products also being developed for the market.
Ship operators remain concerned over availability, price and quality. The IMO has no say over price, their regulations are based on environmental, health and safety concerns, and the recent discussions also include the development of a set of guidelines on these issues.
A ban on non-compliant fuels is one way for the UN agency to respond to increased pressure to strengthen enforcement. The proposed ban comes with an exception, which is of course for vessels fitted with scrubbers, more properly called exhaust gas cleaning systems. Scrubbers are permitted under both the IMO and the EU rules as an alternative form of compliance, but investment in a scrubber comes on the back of expectations that there will be a significant price differential between compliant (o.5% or 0.1% fuels) and the fuel oils (that will have higher sulphur content).
But the bigger issue will be enforcement. What are the penalties to be levied by port state control bodies for the carriage of non-compliant fuel? How often will inspections take place and where does the boundary sit between accidental compliance (i.e. where a sampled fuel will be found to have a sulphur content marginally higher than the 0.1% or 0.5% limit) and gross negligence or willful non-compliance?
There are bans on many things on ships, and there are continued reports of non-compliance, for example the US Coast Guard seems to regularly find examples of magic-pipes where engineers jury-rig a by-pass of an oily water bilge discharge monitoring system. Can a ban on the carriage of non-compliant fuels be effectively enforced?
What about the bunker traders, should they be made liable for non-compliance given ships’ crews often rely on the quality report of a fuel delivered not being capable themselves to check?
The recent discussions at the IMO took place at its sub-committee on Pollution Prevention and Response which met last week. The proposals, which will form amendments to the marine pollution prevention convention, MARPOL, will need to be considered by the marine environment protection committee which meets in April, and then possibly adopted when MEPC meets again in October.
But the question will remain whether port states will enforce things in a robust and even manner to ensure there is a strong deterrent to non-compliance?