Shipping companies are under pressure to phase out use of heavy fuels, as world’s first hybrid battery-powered cruise ship set for launch in 2018
July 11, 2017 — Shipping companies are under pressure to phase out use of heavy fuels ahead of a potential ban on their use in the Arctic in the coming years.
The International Maritime Organisation has approved an environmental review of the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by ships in the Arctic. Already banned in Antarctica, HFO is a dense and viscous byproduct of other fuel refining processes.
Oil spills or leaks would be severely toxic, and devastating to flora, fauna and indigenous communities because of the long time the sludge takes to break down in cold water. The risks to fragile Arctic ecosystems could soar as more polar sea lanes become accessible because of climate change.
A Canadian proposal unanimously adopted at the IMO’s marine environmental protection committee last Friday mandates a review of mitigating measures for HFO use, to begin in April 2018. No calls for a ban on HFOs have been formally put on the agenda but “at this early stage, nothing can be ruled in or out,” an IMO spokesperson said.
“I’m fairly sure a ban will happen one day,” said Peter Hinchliffe, the secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping told the Guardian. “We won’t be opposing it but our role [in the IMO] is to make sure we are not causing a disproportionate disadvantage to ships that use HFOs in the Arctic today.”
More than 850 ships operating in the Arctic today are thought to use HFOs, said Dr Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, and these represent around three-quarters of total Arctic ship fuel use. The majority are flagged to non-Arctic nations such as Panama, Liberia, Singapore and the Marshall Islands.
But as global warming melts new shipping lanes, even larger ships from outside the Arctic are expected to steer through the Polar north in search of shorter journey times, increasing the risk of accidents. In March, Arctic sea ice extent fell to its lowest recorded level since records began 38 years ago.
The shipping industry has already agreed to cut the sulphur content of marine fuels to 0.5% by 2020. “It will be extremely difficult to get HFOs with sulphur content as low as 0.5%. Most ships will turn to lighter fuels – diesel essentially – and that means that imposing an Arctic ban on HFOs may have a very limited life as few ships are likely to go there burning HFOs,” said Hinchliffe.
Rune Thomas Ege, a spokesman for the Norwegian expedition tour operator, Hurtigruten, said that the new Arctic waterways opening up were pulling in inexperienced crews in unsuitable ships, and stoking concerns.
“HFOs should already have been banned in the Arctic – as they has been in Antarctica,” he said.
Hybrid cruise ships
Next year, Hurtigruten says it will launch the world’s first hybrid battery-powered cruise ship, the MS Roald Amundsen, to be followed by the MS Fridtjof Nansen in 2019.
Hinchliffe said while the idea of battery-powered fleets was “not pie in the sky”, it would be inappropriate for tankers needing to travel thousands of miles. Other alternatives were in the works, he suggested.
“We don’t yet have a hydrogen-powered ship but I expect experimentation to take place,” he said. “Our holy grail is to find a carbon-free fuel but there isn’t one at the moment. I would hope that by 2030 we will have a very clear indication of what the fuel is likely to be.”
Aslak Ross, the head of marine standards at Maersk Line, told the Guardian that fuels which were both low-sulphur and low-carbon could enter the world market “sooner than many expect”. “This is one of the reasons we have decided not to invest in ‘scrubbers’, not least due to their negative impact on the vessel’s energy efficiency,” he said.
Scrubbing technology allows ships to chemically filter and cleanse their existing HFO blends and avoid the trouble and expense of switching to lighter distillate fuels such as diesel, liquefied natural gas or, potentially, ethanol.
But scrubbers are seen as impractical by industry analysts because they cost $3-5m to fit per vessel, and a lack of shipyards would prevent a retrofit taking place among the world’s fleet by 2020, when the new sulphur standard takes effect.
Many environmentalists and shipowners alike see scrubbers as a way of ensuring the survival of highly polluting fuels at a time when rapid transition is needed. More than 200 LNG-fuelled ships are in service around the world.