MARPOL sulphur testing: IBIA strives to find balanced approach

IBIA has submitted a proposal to the fifth session of the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR 5) regarding the sulphur verification procedure for so-called in-use samples.

It follows a proposal by China to the 71st session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee to amend appendix VI of Annex VI, Regulation 18, to apply the same sulphur verification procedure to samples taken from ships as the one prescribed by MARPOL Annex VI for the representative fuel oil sample taken at the time of delivery (the MARPOL sample).

As of now, there are no specific regulations or guidelines with regards to verification of the sulphur content of such in-use fuel oil samples. Hence the verification method is left to the discretion of the authority under which such samples have been obtained, meaning ships may be subjected to varying practices.

Sampling of fuel oil during delivery

While the intention of China’s proposal was well understood, MEPC noted that a verification procedure for in-use fuel oil samples should be addressed in guidelines since MARPOL Annex VI does not have a requirement for sampling of in-use fuel oil (unlike the MARPOL sample, which is a regulatory requirement).

During MEPC 71, IBIA supported China’s observation that the sulphur content of all samples should be tested in accordance with ISO 8754, but cautioned: “As for the issue of the sulphur verification procedure for the in-use sample, we believe more work is needed because if it is applied as proposed, there is a risk of ships being falsely found ‘guilty’ of non-compliance. We’re not going into detail on that now but we think that there is work to be done to address this.”

MEPC 71 agreed to forward the Chinese proposal to PPR 5 for further discussion.

Unni Einemo, IBIA’s IMO Representative, explained the issue to delegates at IBIA’s Annual Convention in Singapore in November during her presentation on how the International Maritime Organization plans to make the 2020 global sulphur cap a success.

She told the delegates about IBIA’s proposal, at MEPC 68 in 2015, to align the sulphur verification process described in appendix VI of MARPOL Annex VI with ISO 4259, which is used for verification of sulphur content across the marine industry and also in the legal framework for land-based fuels. That proposal was rejected, despite some support. IBIA has since worked to better inform IMO and industry stakeholders about the implications.

Sulphur disputes could become a big problem in 2020 due to increased use of blending various product streams to produce fuel to a 0.50% sulphur limit. There is also a distinct possibility that more ships will be subjected to port state controls involving testing of in-use samples. Hence it is important to get this right to prevent sulphur disputes which create so much frustration for both bunker buyers and suppliers, and to protect ships from unfair indictment due to the vagaries of test precision realities.

The root of the problem is that the sulphur verification procedure in appendix VI tries to establish the “true value” of the sulphur content in the MARPOL sample, despite the fact that no test method is 100% accurate. The method acknowledges the 95% confidence level for the test method defined as 0.59 x R, but it requires the average of two samples tested in one laboratory, to be below or meet the limit exactly. If it exceeds the limit but is within the limit +0.59 x R, another two tests must be performed in a second laboratory and the average of or all four test results must be at or below the limit.

IBIA’s submission to PPR 5 explains that this method risks an unfair indictment of the ship for non-compliance based the average of just four test results when another set of test results, or a further four, six, ten or even 100 test results may have given a compliant final average result.

It also explains briefly, as Einemo showed delegates during her presentation at IBIA’s annual Convention, that the 95% confidence limit for test results in ISO 4259  is applied in a different way for the ship’s fuel sample and the supplier’s retained commercial sample. Essentially, it  allows the 95% confidence limit to apply to testing of the ship’s sample but not to the supplier’s retained commercial sample, which must not exceed the specified limit in the event of it being tested to determine the outcome of a quality dispute.

In fact, the process in appendix VI of MARPOL Annex VI is quite similar to how ISO 4259 is applied to the supplier’s retained sample in the event of a dispute.

Having explained this, Einemo asked delegates how they thought IBIA should work on addressing the issue going forward.

The poll question and results were as follows:

Possible ways forward on sulphur verification
28% – Campaign for full ISO 4259 alignment at IMO
5% – Use Appendix VI for MARPOL, but ISO 4 259 for in-use sample
31% – Use Appendix VI for both MARPOL and in-use sample
36% – Compromise proposal: Use Appendix VI approach for both MARPOL sample and in-use sample but applied slightly differently:
In-use sample  –  accept limit +0.59 x R (first stage)
MARPOL sample  –  no change

IBIA’s submission to PPR 5 advocates the compromise proposal. For the in-use sample, if the average of the first two test results is above the limit but does not exceed the +0.59 x R, it should be accepted as compliant. In other words, accept the 95% confidence limit for the ship sample with no need to go to the second stage and do more tests, thereby also saving resources.

IBIA hopes this might offer a balanced approach that is, in essence, very similar to the way ISO 4259 is applied differently to the ship’s sample and the supplier’s retained sample, with the MARPOL sample being regarded in the same manner as the supplier’s retained sample.

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