A European crackdown on pollution from ships will require billions worth of investment by shipping firms on filter technology and by refineries on upgrades to produce cleaner fuels – burdens the industries say they can ill afford.
The shipping industry is already struggling due to poor global demand and overcapacity, which have pushed freight rates to unprofitable levels for many operators. European refineries are under pressure from high crude costs, cheap refined product imports and weak demand.
To comply with new European Union laws, shipping companies now face extra costs of €2.6 billion to €11 billion to switch fuels or to fit exhaust filters that would scrub out the sulphur in marine fuel oil.
The new rules require that the sulphur content in shipping fuels fall to 0.1% from 1% by 2015 in "sulphur emission control areas" in the Baltic, North Sea and English Channel. In other EU waters, they will be limited to 0.5% sulphur by 2020, in line with global International Maritime Organization rules.
EU rules have already forced ships to cut sulphur emissions in harbours.
Burning cleaner marine diesel would be a quick fix that would meet the requirements, but it currently trades at a €284 per tonnes premium to fuel oil, which has 1% to 3.5% sulphur content and which most ships use.
What's more, Europe is structurally short of diesel, and its older, less complex refineries cannot retool to produce more diesel without significant investment and lengthy shutdowns. Upgrading plants to produce more diesel could cost at least €400 million.
Switching back and forth between fuels as ships enter the low-sulphur zones could damage a ship's engines, said Sigurd Jenssen, director of Exhaust Gas Cleaning at engineering firm Wärtsila Environmental Solutions in Helsinki.
Another option is for ships to use exhaust filters or "scrubbers" to prevent the sulphur in fuel oil from entering the environment. It transforms the harmful gaseous oxides into neutral sulphates, which can be dumped in the sea.
Scrubbers resemble big car exhaust systems and range in price depending on the size of the engine. A scrubbing system for a 14 megawatt engine of a 150,000 tonnes suezmax oil tanker would weigh over 22 tonnes and for a 55 MW engine around 86 tonnes.
Lindsay Sword, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie in London, expects scrubbing to become fairly standard on ships.
"It's not a really proven and well used technology yet, but we cannot see how the refining industry globally would be able to cope otherwise," she said.
"What would they blend into their existing fuel oil pool to get the sulphur content down from 3.5%? It would need something very low sulphur. It just would not make any economic sense for them to do it."
The technology has passed regulatory hurdles and is starting to be used.
Scrubber-maker Hamworthy, a UK subsidiary of Finland's Wärtsila, sold its first systems for commercial use at the start of this year. Its main competitor, Sweden's Alfa Laval, has also recently sold its first systems.
The European Commission in July 2011 proposed amendments to bring the 1999 marine fuels directive into compliance with standards set by a UN body, the International Maritime Organization. In May, EU governments agreed on legislation to limit sulphur content in shipping fuels.
The IMO regulations – which took effect in 2010 and are designed to cut sulphur dioxide emissions in some of the world’s most congested ports and shipping lanes - apply to Europe’s northern waterways, much of North America and parts of the Caribbean. Ships travelling in the designated maritime emissions areas had to use fuels with a sulphur content of less than 1% by mid-2010, and on the open sea 3.5% by this year.
Those restrictions fall to no more than 0.1% sulphur content by 2015 in the heavily travelled areas and 0.5% in other coastal areas.
The shipping industry supports lower emissions targets but says there are not enough low-sulphur fuels being produced to meet today's needs. Meanwhile, the Roundtable of International Shipping Associations says steady improvements in efficiency, ship design and the development of alternative fuels will lead to more environmentally friendly shipping.
EU official documents
- International Maritime Organization: Sulphur oxides (SOx) – Regulation 14
Business & Industry
- European Sea Ports Organisation: Position of ESPO on the EC proposal to amend Directive 1999/32/EC
- International Chamber of Shipping: Website
NGOs and Think-Tanks
- Transport & Environment: Sulphur in marine fuels