Maritime Safety and Protection of the Environment

The new UN IMO rules that entered into force on January 1st, 2020, reducing the global sulphur cap for marine fuels to 0.5%, represent a major turning point for the shipping industry.

However, despite urgent warnings by many industry stakeholders and several calls for corrective action in the lead up to the new UN IMO regulation, few steps have been taken by the UN IMO and flag states to mitigate risks pertaining to ship marine fuel safety and worldwide fuel availability.

The global supply of compliant 0.5% marine fuel is still lagging behind actual demand. Currently, the shortage is mainly addressed by using blended fuels, which are often unsafe and unsuitable, as recent confirmed worldwide cases of “off-spec” fuel deliveries illustrate. Shortages and safety risks are compounded by the added operational and financial burden on shipowners linked to the disposal of fuel found to be non-compliant after it has been bunkered. Given these practical impediments to implementation, the UN IMO carriage ban of non- compliant fuels on board ships generates additional uncertainties and presents further challenges.

Compliance is highly contingent upon the worldwide availability of safe, “on-spec” 0.5% sulphur marine fuels that are fit for purpose, for which oil companies, refiners and bunker suppliers must assume responsibility. Consequently, the implementation of the UN IMO’s sulphur cap is in large part beyond the control of many ship operators. It presents many segments of the shipping industry with a daunting challenge and warrants a more practical and pragmatic approach from port and flag states, pending the ramp up of compliant fuel production.

The objective of the 2020 global sulphur cap is for all ships to use low sulphur marine fuels in the interest of reducing air pollution and protecting human health. Shipowners may exceptionally comply by installing Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems (EGCSs or scrubbers) to clean exhaust gases before they are released into the atmosphere, while discharging sulphur and other residues into the sea.

However, the uptake of these systems has raised concerns regarding the environmental impact of their effluent discharges, leading to the unilateral banning of open-loop scrubbers in many ports and territorial waters around the world. In this context, the UN IMO has launched a comprehensive impact assessment, to be complemented by an evaluation and harmonisation of the rules and guidance on scrubber discharges, based on scientific evidence, and develop regulatory measures and instruments as appropriate.

During the initial phase of implementation of the UN IMO’s sulphur cap, flag state and port state control authorities should deal with vessels fairly and on a case-by-case basis, as compliance often depends on operational parameters beyond the control of ship operators and crews.