“It’s the biggest change for the industry since shipping’s switch from coal to diesel power.” Norwegian Oil Trading analyst Anders Kobbernagel wasn’t commenting on a new digital shift but Sulphur 2020: an industry-wide regulatory change that will leave shipowners facing rising fuel costs.

Indeed, the requirement to limit the sulphur content of bunker fuel to a maximum of 0.5% from 2020 could mean $35 billion in extra costs for the industry, according to a recent estimate by Kobbernagel.

A transformation for the environment

But if the challenge is big, so too are the potential rewards. As the January deadline looms, Sulphur 2020 promises a significant reduction in shipping’s impact on the global environment and human health. Indeed, the IMO estimates a 68% reduction in the negative effect on human health through air pollution, with significant reductions in strokes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and pulmonary disease.

Evidence of the impact on public health of reducing the sulphur content of fuel is already available. That’s thanks to the results of the first large-scale study of the impact of a sulphur cap on Baltic sailings, which was presented by researchers at the Danish Maritime Authority in April 2019. When the 0.5% global sulphur cap is introduced in January, a number of premature deaths will be prevented globally, perhaps as many as 130,000 a year, one of the researchers, Lars Barregård of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, believes. The International Maritime Organization itself has estimated that 570,000 premature deaths will be avoided globally between 2020 and 2025 thanks to the introduction of the Sulphur 2020 regulations.

And the improvements to human health are the tip of the iceberg. Reducing sulphur emissions helps prevent acid rain, which means reduced harm to crops, forests and marine life.

New regulations will have ‘a massive impact’

Charlotte Røjgaard, global technical manager for marine fuels at Bureau Veritas, confirms that the new regulations are already having a big impact on shipowners. “This is because Sulphur 2020 affects 75% of the current demand for marine fuel,” she explains. “Not only will vessels have to prepare for the change, but refineries, shore terminals, tank farms and barging operations will have to prepare too.”

For shippers, the new regulations also spell considerable upheaval. Challenges include rising costs as the increased price of fuel next year takes effect. “Ultimately, the increased cost of fuels will be paid for by people paying to transport their cargo,” Røjgaard explains.

Today, the Sulphur 2020 transition is already taking place, with vessels owners preparing strategies for which fuels to use, tank preparation, keeping fuels segregated where necessary, updating purchase contracts and training crew.

Everything you need to know about Sulphur 2020.

Choosing fuel, cleaning up – and contamination

Choosing a suitable Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) should take into account the scope for segregating fuels and the facility to heat or not heat individual fuel tanks onboard – the best approach is to keep fuels segregated to avoid incompatibility issues.

If tanks, fuel lines and filters can be heated, cold flow properties aren’t an issue. But if these parts of the fuel system are cold, and if the vessel is trading in cold regions, cold flow properties should also be considered. “Technology and procurement departments should interact so that fuels with good cold flow properties are purchased where necessary,” explains Røjgaard.

Sulphur 2020 also means that good housekeeping must be implemented on board all vessels. Moving from heavy fuel oil to fuel with a lower sulphur content means that tanks and fuel systems should be stripped prior to bunkering VLSO. If not, the fuel risks being contaminated and becoming non-compliant.

Learn how we’re securing fuel supply.

Navigating the challenges ahead

Some of these challenges – like segregating fuels to avoid incompatibility issues – are familiar issues for shipowners and operators. Mixing incompatible fuels, for example, can create an asphaltenic sludge affecting separators and filters. “That can prevent the flow of fuel to the main engine, meaning a loss of propulsion. This is a known challenge today,” adds Røjgaard.

Those ship operators that burn fuel that doesn’t comply with Sulphur 2020 face fines, or worse still, being detained and having to discharge the non-compliant fuel from the vessel. But the job of preparing for the new regulations is far from insurmountable, Røjgaard says. “A year ago, I might have mentioned the technical challenges when asked about Sulphur 2020. Today, I think the biggest challenge for operators is to take ownership of the change and prepare themselves.”

Røjgaard believes shipowners should definitely be able to cope. “With proper preparation, planning and training, the technical challenges can be managed. We’re familiar with the challenges related to VLSFO. It’s the mindset that has to change.”