Preparing crew for an LNG-fuelled future

Pavilion Gas and FueLNG were each awarded a bunker supplier licence in January 2016. Credit: Singapore Energy Market Authority
Pavilion Gas and FueLNG were each awarded a bunker supplier licence in January 2016. Credit: Singapore Energy Market Authority

In the past few years, the industry has been alight with the talk of liquefied natural gas (LNG) becoming the new super fuel, the silver bullet to reducing the environmental impact of the international shipping industry, and potential all-round saviour come the arrival of the global sulphur cap in 2020.

This flurry of LNG fuel developments in the industry signals the probability of LNG increasingly displacing oil as the preferred fuel, with many great prospects ahead for cleaner, leaner shipping operations. But what does this shift to LNG fuel mean for the crew and safety at sea?

The outlook

LNG-fuelled ships and advances in technology flood the media, while LNG fuel discussions continue to dominate debate at shipping conferences worldwide. One thing is certain: the number of LNG-fuelled ships traversing the oceans will increase in the coming years, although the prediction of how many will enter the global fleet remains in constant flux.

In 2012, class society DNV GL forecast that by 2020 there would be about 1,000 LNG-fuelled ships in the global fleet. In 2015 it reduced its estimate to 400–600. Meanwhile, fellow class society Lloyd’s Register predicted in 2015 that LNG-fuelled ships would make up 11% of the global fleet in 2030.

Many in the industry believe interest in LNG-fuelled ships has reduced in the past few years, hindered by lack of infrastructure and bunkering facilities, coupled with low oil prices keeping shipowners stuck to their bunker of choice, heavy fuel oil. But the impending global fuel sulphur cap reduction to 0.5% is due to enter force on 1 January 2020 and the inevitable tightening of other environmental regulations that will follow means some are withholding a bullish stance on the future widespread increasing use of LNG fuel.

Despite all the speculation, new orders for LNG-fuelled and LNG-ready ships remain steady. In March 2017, the in service and on order fleet of LNG-fuelled ships reached 200. In November 2017, DNV GL released data that confirmed 117 ships on the water were using LNG, with a confirmed orderbook of 111 vessels. Another 114 vessels are classified as LNG-ready and could use LNG fuel with modification, such as the retrofitting of fuel tanks.

Investment in bunkering infrastructure is also heating up. In2018, DNV GL said there would be six LNG bunkering vessels in operation across the globe, with four more confirmed. It added that, according to data in its LNG business intelligence portal, there were 60 LNG supply locations worldwide and a further 28 facilities had been decided, with at least 36 under discussion.

Last year saw a blizzard of LNG-fuelled ship commitments from owners of various vessel types. The cruise industry made some serious steps towards the switch to LNG. For example, Carnival Corporation has seven 180,000 gt, LNG-powered cruise ships on order, with rumours circulating that it may commit to more. In the bulk carrier segment, ESL Shipping will take delivery of Viikki and Haaga, a pair of 26,000 dwt LNG-powered bulk carriers, and Ilshin’s 50,000 dwt LNG-fuelled bulk carrier is close to completion. Currently Viking Line ships ferry Viking Grace and Tarbit Shipping’s LNG product tanker Bit Viking hold the title of being two of the largest LNG-fuelled ships in service.

In September 2017, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announced it was teaming up with major local shipyards in a pilot project to construct the world’s largest LNG-fuelled ship, at 180,000 gt. Then, in late 2017, no commitment to LNG was more notable than CMA CGM specifying dual-fuel engines for nine new 22,000 teu container ships. This firm pledge to LNG marked a significant turning point and other container lines could sharply follow suit.

Prepared crews are paramount

LNG is a cryogenic liquid that consists predominately of methane with small amounts of ethane, propane, and inert nitrogen. It is well-known that LNG presents safety hazards different to those of traditional fuels, such as oil and diesel. These hazards chiefly centre on the cryogenic storage requirements (-160°C when at atmospheric pressure), asphyxiation, and fire and explosion. This is what crews trained to sail on ship types other than LNG carriers need to be aware of.

LNG is safe if operated properly, but safe operation requires crew to follow enhanced or differing procedures to the letter. At present, the world’s stock of seafarers do not have much experience of using LNG as fuel and experts in LNG fuel handling and awareness training have had to shift their mindset to develop enhanced safety requirements specific to shipping. Not walking around with a mobile phone in a pocket, or remembering to wear specific clothing are simple examples of such requirements, but observance may be hampered because crew may previously worked on ships where these were not strictly enforced.

The bottom line is that inexperienced seafarers working with LNG fuel pose a major risk to safety and the key to mitigating that risk is adequate training. Mandatory training requirements laid down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for crew destined for LNG-fuelled ships include attendance at basic familiarisation training by all crew and advanced training by senior crew. These courses can be classroom-based and run for one to two days or up to a week for the advanced training. But for some experts in the industry, this training does not go far enough to prepare crew for safe operations on board LNG-fuelled ships and can miss out vital aspects.

Ray Gillett, director and general manager at GTT Training and chair of the working group on training and competence in the Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF), said the group had identified gaps in the IMO training requirements – specifically around training needs for bunkering and handling processes. This led SGMF to develop its own guidelines to support and go beyond what IMO is requesting.

Gillett believes there is a risk that crew will treat LNG as a fuel, without the intense focus on its safety that would happen if it were a cargo. Crew on LNG carriers must be trained to be keenly aware of issues that could occur and how to contain them. So the challenge is to get crew to realise that LNG is not the same as fuel oil and why it presents different risks, including its handling, as acryogenic fuel, the high expansion ratio (600:1), and the low flashpoint temperature of less than 60°C. As the LNG fuel will be fully enclosed and not visible, it is easy to forget its presence and the potential risks, a scenario akin to when a person refuels their car.

However, Gillett was quick to point out to SAS that there were no real problems at the moment. In fact, he said companies moving into the field of LNG fuel use on their ships were making the investment required to fully train their crews to address the risk. He added, however, that problems in training and safety issues could arise when LNG becomes more of a mainstream fuel.

Tony in’t Hout, head of operations and technical at Stream Marine Training, also believes that training requirements for crew destined for LNG-fuelled ships are too light and insufficient at present. For in’t Hout, a major issue lies in the fact that crew can attend classroom courses without doing anything, whereas in order to properly train the crew he believes that practical hands-on training is required.

This is something that has already begun in Singapore, with FueLNG and Pavilion gas carrying out practical live LNG bunkering trials. Training must also continue, being conducted at regular intervals instead of just as a one-off occurrence, he added.

Untrained, inexperienced crews that are transferred on to LNG-fuelled ships from other ship types present a huge safety risk if not adequately trained, said int’ Hout, and it would set the industry back years if a safety catastrophe were to happen. Therefore a prepared crew is paramount in the industry’s LNG-fuelled future.