Cargo ship

From January 1 2015, the maximum sulphur content in bunker fuel permitted in the ECA zones of north Europe and the Baltic Sea will reduce from 1% to just 0.1% – forcing ship operators to switch to more expensive fuel.

The switch from tanks of IFO380 to low-sulphur marine gas oil (MGO), based on today’s prices, will cost operators up to $300 per tonne more.

Hitherto, discussion has centred on the challenge facing carriers to successfully pass this cost on to shippers. Hapag-Lloyd is one of the few carriers that appears to have alerted its customers to the prospect of higher bunker surcharges to cover the new rule, which it calculates will add around $270m a year to its fuel costs.

However, this week industry analyst SeaIntel has looked at the issue from another angle and investigated the number of fuel inspections performed by the authorities in the regions. It concluded that most countries do not have the deterrent of fines that match the added cost of using low-sulphur fuel.

SeaIntel’s researchers contacted all the maritime authorities of the nations within the new reduced sulphur content ECA zones to determine how many inspections they perform each year, and potential fines for offenders.

The analysis showed that, in 2013, less than 1% of vessels had their tanks tested and only three countries, Sweden, Norway and Finland, are planning to increase the number of inspections when the new restrictions come into effect next year.

Moreover, SeaIntel said it found that potential fines “varied significantly” between countries, with no co-ordinated level of financial penalty high enough to act as a deterrent.

SeaIntel COO and partner Alan Murphy said: “Our analysis shows that a 4,50 teu vessel sailing at 16 knots from the beginning of the Channel to Hamburg, using 1% sulphur fuel instead of the mandated 0.1% sulphur-fuel, will save €12,000 – six times more than the German fine, and that is just one way.

“Even the fines in Poland, which are among the highest in north Europe, will only just match the savings [from not complying] on a trip from the Channel to Gdansk and back – and that assumes the vessel gets caught every time.”

There is no suggestion that the blue chip ship operators would even contemplate contravening the new regulations, but clearly SeaIntel has identified gaps in the ECA Zone compliance systems that could give rise to unscrupulous owners and/or charterers taking a chance on being found out.

Meanwhile, more carriers are looking at the option of LNG, which is currently 20% cheaper than heavy fuel oil and around 50% less in price than MGO.

The interest from container operators in LNG is certain to intensify when the next oil shock hits, but in the meantime this remains the preserve of pioneers such as US-flag operator TOTE which has two LNG-fuelled containerships under construction.

“The move to LNG fuel is no less significant than the evolution from sail to steam,” said Mark Tabbutt, chairman of Saltchuk, TOTE’s parent company.

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