Sulphur fuel oil tests disrupted by COVID-19

Testing sulphur in fuel. Credit: IHS/Tony Slinn

Shipping’s ability to test samples of very low sulphur fuel oils (VLSFO) is being hampered by international restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, raising concerns about ensuring fuel quality and safety.

Charlotte Røjgaard, global head of Bureau Veritas’ bunker fuel service Verifuel, said that it has been impossible to get fuel test kits in and out of some ports during the pandemic.    

“In the early stages of the pandemic, different ports took different actions on fuel surveys, some allowed surveyors to attend the barge, others to attend the ship and in some cases would have to face 14 days of quarantine afterwards,” Røjgaard explained. “It made it impossible to carry out a survey.”

Røjgaard, speaking at a webinar hosted by maritime consultancy Blue, said it has since become easier to take fuel samples as regional regulations imposed by governments and port authorities has become clearer and the surveyors acting on Verifuel’s behalf have been able to gain access to the vessels.

“We then saw that the bunkers were carried out, the samples were taken but then the agents were in a lockdown and it was impossible to pick up the samples,” said Røjgaard.

Steve Bee, group commercial and business development director, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) concurred that bunker quantity surveys (BQS) have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Though, in certain cases, restricting access to vessels was taken by shipping companies to protect their crews. “Shipping companies have decided to stop or limit a BQS taking place in order to protect their crew from others boarding their ships. Of course, this is fully understandable as health must always be the priority,” said Bee to SAS.

Conversely, Bee stressed that delays on fuel sample testing have been minimal, with crew ensuring that samples are dropped off in a port, then are picked up by a courier and taken to the nearest VPS laboratory. “At worst where ports did restrict the drop-off of samples, vessels simply held on to such samples and released them at the next port-of-call,” said Bee.

However, on certain ship schedules, it can take up to three weeks until a ship calls at a port again, which would add noteable delays to fuel testing, in which compatibility or other safety issues could arise.

Solutions to ensure samples can be tested in labs, such as via drop off boxes in ports, have helped surveyors to ensure contamination risks are limited, but Røjgaard said this still slows down the process.

Bee explained that for this pre-burn testing service, there is normally up to a four day window to transfer the sample from the ship to one of VPS’s four testing laboratories in Rotterdam, Singapore, Houston, and Fujairah and for the corresponding lab to complete testing, report and advise the vessel before it starts burning the new fuel.

The rapid turnaround of the service is paramount to ship safety, as the fuel ideally needs to be tested before it’s burnt. “The test report comes back with engineering comments for crew in how to manage that fuel as it may need some form of additional treatment regarding heating and storage temperatures, transfer rates, purification processes which take place onboard the ship,” explained Bee. “Based on the test results we advise what measures needs to be undertaken with the fuel to ensure it doesn’t cause engine damage or failures, complies with Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirements, and ensure the sulphur levels are compliant with environmental legislation.”

“Testing is a damage prevention service, it’s there to protect the engine and ship, to protect the health and safety of the crew, and to protect the environment,” concluded Bee.