A 2016 report by Finland estimated that failure to reduce sulfur oxide emissions from ships would contribute to more than 570,000 additional premature deaths worldwide between 2020-2025. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) decided to take action. The result was IMO 2020, which sharply reduces acceptable sulfur content from a maximum of 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent.
Even though the IMO 2020 rule takes effect on January 1, 2020, ship owners have not been quick to switch over. Here’s why.
With HSFO ceasing to be a fuel option for most ships (those without scrubbers, see below) on January 1, 2020, suppliers are doing everything they can to sell it. Even with supplies falling fast, prices remain very low. In some areas the price of HSFO has dropped by as much as 30 percent, making it a much cheaper alternative to compliant fuels.
It looks like many ship owners will continue to use HSFO until supply dries up completely or the year ends, whichever comes first. As Stephen Jew, director of global refining and marketing at IHS Markit said in an interview with JOC, “There’s no incentive for carriers to burn it yet. They’re waiting for the very last minute.”
The easiest and most conservative course of action for ship owners will be to switch to MGO, the equivalent of heating oil. Low-sulfur MGO is already in use in designated emission control areas, where the sulfur content standard is currently 0.10 percent. That requirement will not change under IMO 2020, though new areas may be designated as emission control areas.
The quandary for ship owners is that the low-sulfur fuels now in production are priced significantly less than MGO. But they have no experience with these fuels. They have to decide whether to go with the lower-priced fuel or the one they know they can depend on.
There has been very little demand for VLSFO to date. With the exception of some parts of Taiwan and in small emission control area zones in China, there is virtually no market for VLSFO. As explained above, there is no demand VLSFO today because of the extremely low cost of HSFO. But ship owners also have questions about VLSO.
No one doubts that ships will run on VLSFO, that has already been proved. But what will be the short- and long-term effects on the ships themselves? Will there be an impact on maintenance requirements? Will it cause parts to break down that are not affected by long-relied-on fuels like MGO and HFSO?
As the head of one freight shipping executive put it, “It would not be acceptable to have even one ship drifting powerless at the mercy of the ocean.”
The one way that ships will be able to continue to use HSFO will be if they are equipped with exhaust gas cleaning systems (EGCS) known as scrubbers. By removing sulfur oxide from the ship’s engine and boiler gases to a point equivalent to the reduced sulfur limit, scrubbers comply with IMO 2020.
However, scrubbers use a lot of water, which needs to be discharged as wastewater after use. IMO guidelines for wastewater discharge, last updated in 2015, are currently under review. A change in the guidelines could result in unanticipated costs for ship owners using scrubbers. Also, some ports have already banned wastewater discharge.
IHS Markit estimates the number of ships fitted for scrubbers will reach 2,600-2,700 in 2020.
It’s important to note that ships powered by liquid natural gas or biofuels will not be affected by IMO 2020. An increase in the use of LNG to power ships is anticipated.
Whether ship owners choose to install scrubbers or change fuels, the additional costs to the container shipping industry are expected to be in the $10 billion to $15 billion range. Naturally, a portion these cost increases (if not all) will be passed on to shippers.
At this point it looks like we are in for an adjustment period until a new “normal” is established. As things change, Jaguar Freight will keep you informed.