IHS Markit 2020 debate stirs up fuel controversy

With the memory of Houston bunker contamination incidents still in many minds, concerns of near-experimental fuel blends are foremost in many shipowners’ minds, with more than 45 minutes of Wednesday’s IHS Markit panel debate Countdown to Compliance 2020 surrounding this question.

The wrong fuel blends can cause major issues such as; unstable fuels can seize in the tank or pipes, causing blockages, engine failures and loss-of-propulsion (LOP) incidents, the dangers of which are more prescient than ever following the recent incident on the Viking Sky.

Unsure of fuel viscosity and cold-flow properties, which oil majors have said will vary wildly from one batch to the next thanks to blending challenges, audience members were vociferous in their concern.

“We’re six months from the implementation and we’re still having discussions about the unknowns,” said panel member Ronan Graham, IHS Markit associate director. “It’s going to be an interesting time for the first six months after 2020. We’ll see the market settle down for a little bit after that but then the discussion will liven up again as we look to 2050.”

However, Gijsbert De Jong, Bureau Veritas marine marketing and sales director, insisted that fuel contamination and fuel blending were completely separate issues. “There is no doubt a Houston case will happen again – as long as there are residuals,” he told the audience. “But there is no particular reason why it would be worse because of IMO 2020. We can see that there is very little issue about stability there.

“It is good news in terms of guaranteeing quality, there is very little in the way of stability problems. That doesn’t mean there are not problems with compatibility. It is absolutely key to get compatibility right.”

Fuel incompatibility has a storied history of causing LOP incidents. Of note, is the chaos seen at the beginning of the 2016 0.1% sulphur cap in Northern Europe and North America ECA zones.

“When we had the change in ECA areas to 0.1% there were a number of problems when vessels switched,” said Kirsi Tikka, executive vice-president Global Marine at ABS. “There was a lot of training put in place, guidance, and we have not had those problems in California since then. The ECA vessels are a small percentage of the global fleet, however, it does give us a case study insofar as it’s important to identify these hazards and put procedures in place.”