Time ripe for electronic BDNs and other digital bunkering documentation
Social distancing precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has boosted interest in fully electronic means of providing bunker delivery notes (BDNs), including counter-signatures. Fully electronic BDN solutions have already been developed by some IBIA members, but have so far failed to gain much traction. Part of the reason has been reluctance to pay for the implementation fee for the software. Another issue is scepticism about whether an electronic, as opposed to a paper and ink BDN will be accepted by third parties, such as port state control officers, or the customers requiring documentation before paying the bill.
During discussions with IBIA members at the end of April, it was clear that even companies that are actively pursuing digitalisation still rely a lot of physical documentation. On the other hand, some were able to have a fully digitalised process.
We heard of instances where COVID-19 precautions meant the receiving ship and supply barge or shore-based supply station allowed no physical interaction at all, meaning no personnel moved between them. In extreme cases, there has even refusal to exchange physical documentation because the virus can be transmitted via contaminated surfaces. In both of these situations, they have found ways to manage, for example by using old familiar methods such as passing documentation between the ship and barge in a bucket, or innovating by using electronic means, such as mobile phone cameras, scanners and printers to exchange documentation and counter-signatures.
The BDN is a crucial legal document for recording the specifics of a physical bunker delivery in terms of the specific grade and quantity of the fuel delivered and must be signed by representatives both for the receiving ship and the physical supplier.
Legally speaking, electronic documentation should be sufficient both for relevant authorities and as proof for parties in the supply chain to process payments. An electronic BDN can meet all requirements for information and signatures. There are ways to do this reliably, and it can even be argued that it provides better traceability than paper as it can be linked to a GPS signal that gives an electronic time and location stamp. The right tools make the process tamper-proof. For those that need a physical document, these can be printed off.
A key concern is whether electronic BDNs will be accepted by relevant authorities. Some ship and port administrations are happy to accept electronic versions, others are not.
MARPOL Annex VI makes specific requirements for information that must be included on the BDN, but it does not specify that it has to be a paper or hard copy document. The regulation says that PSCOs must be able to inspect the BDN and take certified copies of it. There is no reason why that can’t be done electronically or through printing certified copies.
IBIA members on the call noted that efforts to make the process from enquiry through to post-delivery documentation digital and integrated are underway, but have been on hold as companies have faced extra workloads to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a saying that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Physical distancing measures taken across the world to slow the spread of the coronavirus has demonstrated this in our industry. This should lead to growing recognition that electronic documentation is useful and acceptable, as long as there are safeguards against falsifying it.
There are benefits beyond the current need for ways to manage processes remotely, as digitalisation can also improve efficiency. Streamlining these processes could benefit multiple parties, including bunker buyers, traders, physical suppliers, surveyors, and authorities including customs, ports and flag States.