Shipowners call open-loop scrubber ban “hypocrisy”

Heated arguments about EU push to get international clarity of scrubber wash-water quality at IMO.

There is increased shipowner anger at plans to discuss open loop scrubber wash water quality at the IMO nearly 15 years after the first systems were tested in the industry.

The IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim may be right, the global sulphur cap may have been a long time coming and it may indeed be fast approaching, but  shipowners remain worried about the lack of experience in using new low-sulphur fuels, many of which are still not widely available, and now the ongoing and growing rumblings about certain types of exhaust scrubbing technology being possibly banned.

On January 1st 2020 all ships will need to use a fuel that has a sulphur content of less than 0.5% (unless the ship is in an emission control area where it has to use fuels with less than 0.1% sulphur content). The IMO regulations allow equivalence, meaning a solution that achieves the same goal as the regulation, and scrubber technology allows a vessel to continue to use cheaper residual oils that have a higher sulphur content.

Oil majors have produced some new fuels, either blends or new refinery stems, but they have not been widely tested and owners have been expressing a lot of concerns over compatibility because some of these products are regional in availability and the composition of one may prevent blending with another, so vessels with limited bunker tanks could have big operational problems.

With the potential price difference between these low-sulphur fuels and the current bunker fuel of choice, a residual fuel with a soon to be non-compliant sulphur content, owners have been more interested in scrubber technologies as they can get a payback on their investment in a few years.

According to DNV GL data on its Veracity platform there are 3,023 vessels either with scrubbers installed  or on order to be installed. While this is a small percentage of the global fleet it is a huge increase from the 767 in 2018.

The technology first evolved for power stations that evolved for the power market about 50 years ago. The first marine test version appeared in 2001 onboard a British ferry as concern about future emission control area limitations began to be discussed.

Most of the scrubbers installed on ships are open loop versions where the technology washes the sulphur and particulate matter out of the exhaust using a spray of seawater. The salinity of the water is the active ingredient that helps draw out the sulphur, with the seawater eventually being pumped back into the sea. Some ports have decided to ban the discharge of this washwater, although one North European shipowner representative has indicated that this is mostly under the European Clean Water Act and not any international shipping regulation.

But there are now concern about proposals to have formal discussions at the IMO about scrubber washwater quality following pressure from the European Union.

Magda Kopczynska, director of waterborne Transport at the European Commissions DG Mare confirmed that the EU had pushed the discussion to be taken up at the IMO so it could be resolved at a global level. ”There are ports making decisions to ban open loop scrubbers (around the world) which is why we need to have the discussions fast and we need to have legal clarity so you (Owners) know what you can safely invest in.”

The issue is likely to be taken up at the IMO’s Pollution Prevention and Response sub-committee meeting in February 2020.

However these plans have enraged some shipowners, such as  Dynacom Tankers chairman George Procopiou. “It is the biggest hypocrisy I have seen,” he told the audience at this year’s Maritime Cyprus event in Limassol. “When we had the calls …for unleaded fuel… it was on the refineries to make the change. Now we want to put a small refinery onboard to improve exhaust emissions, and we have the great surprise that even this,… they are revisiting. This is the hypocrisy”.

George Procopiou

For him and others, it is an example of the regulators once again penalising shipowners that have been early movers in adopting a technology.

Safe Bulkers is another large owner that has opted to install open loop scrubbers. “We can’t retrofit closed loop scrubbers,” argued Poly Hajioannou Safe Bulkers chief executive at Maritime Cyprus, explaining that the company now has scrubbers on 11 vessels, all open-loop systems, and more will be retrofitted by the end of the year.

“We did not do anything early because it was expensive so when the prices came down we ..put open-loop  scrubbers on the bigger ships.. It is $60m of our own money.”

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