John LaRese, marine fuels technical advisor at ExxonMobil, explains why vessel operators must plan well ahead to ensure they comply with the IMO’s 0.5% sulphur cap by the 2020 deadline

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) decision to implement a 0.5% cap on sulphur emissions has created uncertainty among passenger ship and other vessel operators. Questions are already being asked about how to comply with the changing emissions target, as well as what types of fuels will be available and where. However, ensuring compliance isn’t just about fuel selection; the actual switchover process from heavy fuel oil (HFO) to new, low-sulphur alternatives needs careful management. There are also implications for the selection of lubricants.

Vessel operators will need to take a series of important steps before bunkering a low-sulphur fuel; they will have to work out arrangements that meet the specific requirements of their vessels. Without careful preparation operators may jeopardise their sulphur compliance, which carries the risk of costly fines. They must also plan around fuel availability, given the possibility that some ports may be unable to meet the demand from the industry.

Unless a vessel is fitted with an exhaust gas cleaning system (scrubber), operators will need to ensure that their fuel tanks do not contain high-sulphur HFO by the IMO deadline. Fuel tanks will probably retain sediment from the existing HFO, which is likely to contain those higher levels of sulphur. If this is not removed, there is the risk that the compliant fuel will be contaminated, pushing its sulphur content above the 0.5% limit.

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