Maritime Safety and Protection of the Environment

January 1st, 2020 marks the entry into force of the new UN IMO sulphur cap requiring all ships to use fuel oil with a sulphur content of no more than 0.5%, while there is no guarantee that adequate low sulphur fuel will be available worldwide.

The application from 1.3.2020 by the UN IMO of a carriage ban of non-compliant fuels on board ships will pose additional uncertainties and further challenges. The objective of the 2020 global low sulphur mandate is for all ships to use low sulphur marine fuels in the interest of reducing air pollution and protecting human health. However, shipowners may exceptionally comply by installing Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems (EGCSs) to clean exhaust gases before they are released into the atmosphere, while discharging sulphur and other residues into the sea. However, should this “equivalent exception”, which is now being scrutinised by the UN IMO, be allowed to become the rule, the intention of the regulation and the overall environmental benefit would be seriously undermined.

Apart from the uncertainty about availability of compliant fuel in sufficient quantities worldwide, there are also doubts as to whether the low sulphur fuel produced will also meet the specified safety standards, as required by the UN IMO International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Ship operators need to have assurances that each load of bunker fuel adheres to the SOLAS safety specifications in order not to jeopardise the safety of ships, their crews and the protection of the environment. It is, therefore, necessary to appropriately address all these availability, safety and operational implications that the 2020 global low sulphur mandate presents, and especially the safety and compatibility issues pertaining to blended fuels.

It is also important that flag states and port state control authorities deal practically and fairly with vessels experiencing technical or operational problems due to reasons beyond their control in the initial period following the implementation of the 2020 low sulphur requirements and to deal in a pragmatic way with the huge problem of a ship having to off-load non-compliant fuel - once it is tested and found to be non-compliant - which was loaded inadvertently. During this challenging transitional period and beyond, ship operators and crews should not be held disproportionately responsible for the safety and environmental consequences of the provision of unsafe or unsuitable fuels. In this respect, the responsibilities of oil companies, refiners and bunker suppliers for the provision of fuels that are “on-spec”, safe and fit-for-use and available worldwide should be appropriately stressed.

MEPC 74 in May 2019 made progress towards a robust data collection system and feedback mechanism on fuel oil quality and availability, adopted the revised template on the Fuel Oil Non-Availability Report (FONAR) in the 2019 Guidelines for consistent implementation of the 0.5% sulphur cap on marine fuels in the light of operational and safety considerations and gave due consideration to a pragmatic approach by port and flag states of vessels’ non-compliance due to reasons beyond their control. If significant problems are detected, corrective measures should be taken as necessary, based on reports related to non-availability of compliant fuels and fuel quality issues to be submitted to MEPC 75 in Spring 2020. MEPC 74 also embraced the proposal for inclusion of a new output in the Committee’s work programme on evaluation and harmonisation of rules and guidance on the discharges of EGCSs into waters and potentially the assessment of the overall “equivalency” of these systems.

In addition, the UN IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 101) in June 2019 decided to establish and implement an appropriate Action Plan to deal with all the critical parameters affecting fuel oil safety, including those related with blended fuels, taking into account in all cases the latest edition of industry standards (e.g. ISO 8217:2017 and ISO/PAS when available). It also unambiguously acknowledged the responsibility of fuel oil suppliers for the provision of safe fuels, including in the action plan mandatory requirements for suppliers’ confirmation that each actual fuel batch delivered complies with SOLAS requirements and calling for action by the governments when the flashpoint requirements are not met.

Although a disproportionate responsibility is still placed upon shipowners / operators, they at least now have some useful tools in hand which will hopefully help towards achieving a smoother implementation process.

The outstanding bunker fuel oil non-availability issue and, in particular, the safe operation of ships in relation to the use of new low sulphur marine fuel oil must be effectively resolved.