A question of quality
‘Quality’ refers to how good or bad something is, or its basic nature. Most of us want good quality, but how do we define it?
Fuel quality has always been a hot potato in our industry. We have an international standard, ISO 8217, to judge fuel quality against, which helps a lot! ISO 8217 is a ‘living document’ that takes into account the evolution of fuel quality and fuel systems/engine technology. It sets limit values for specific parameters that helps ensure the fuel can be safely used providing it is correctly managed and treated onboard the receiving ship. Work is underway on the 7th edition to replace ISO 8217:2017 to better reflect the nature of fuels in the market today.
Most of the time, ships receive fuels that meet relevant quality specifications and use them without incident. That doesn’t make the headlines; only off-specs do. From time to time, chemicals that are not specified in ISO 8217 are suspected to be the cause of operational problems or damage within a ship’s fuel system or engine, and hence may be in contravention of Clause 5 in ISO 8217. One major incident took place in Singapore this year. On this occasion, there was broad consensus among fuel testing agencies about the type of chemicals (Chlorinated Organic Compounds) that caused operational problems. This is not always the case; there is no such consensus about which chemicals were to blame for the 2018 problems with fuels originating in Houston.
There is discussion at the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) regarding what the IMO can or should do to enhance the safety of ships relating to the use of fuel oil. It is a tough nut to crack. There are very real concerns about the risk to the safety of ships and crew from contaminated fuels. But how can the IMO solve problems that are both rare and often poorly understood? I think it makes sense for IMO to work closely with ISO, CIMAC and IBIA, where fuel quality experts are already well represented and actively engaged. CIMAC and ISO are well versed in collecting and analysing information from such incidents and identifying when there is a clear causal link between a specified chemical compound at certain concentrations and operational issues, as well as identifying appropriate test methods. Bit by bit, we learn more about which chemicals and fuel attributes have the potential to pose a safety risk to ships, how to identify them, as well as how to mitigate negative impacts on ships through preventive measures.
When problems occur and fuel is suspected to be the cause, we need constructive and open dialogue about where problems lie and strive to find ways to address them. This entails detailed fuel analysis and investigation into exactly what happened on the ship. We also need cooperation from the supply-side to prevent fuels suspected of causing problems from being supplied to other ships, and help identify the sources of problem fuels. Also helpful is an effective bunker licensing system and pro-active port authority, as we saw in Singapore where the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) ensured the supply of the contaminated fuel batch was halted when it was linked to reports of problems on ships. MPA also investigated the incident to see how it came about, and took action against one of the suppliers involved for contravening the terms and conditions of its bunkering license. MPA and the Singapore Shipping Association will co-chair an industry expert group (IEG) to establish a list of chemicals to be tested and their corresponding concentration limits. The expert group is expected to make its recommendations on additional measures to strengthen bunker quality assurance of bunkers delivered in Singapore. IBIA supports MPA’s efforts to strengthen fuel quality checks and we have confirmed our participation in the IEG alongside experts from testing laboratories and other relevant bodies.
How to improve quality?
As I was writing this, I looked at dictionary definitions of ‘quality’. One of them was “a high standard”, and for context, this example was given: “He’s not interested in quality. All he cares about is making money.”Is that how our industry is perceived? Whether it is a bunker supplier or trader, or a bunker buyer looking for the lowest price product?
We all need to make a living, but if we want to improve our industry, we need to care about quality. And for that, we need people with the right knowledge, skills and mindsets working for companies that embrace and pursue high standards.
The IMO’s Guidance on best practice for fuel oil suppliers for assuring the quality of fuel oil delivered to ships defines a quality-oriented fuel oil supplier as: “A fuel supplier with a quality management system certified in accordance with an internationally recognized standard (ISO 9001 or equivalent), and which may be registered with the Member State and/or licensed, where such licensing/accreditation schemes are in place; and therefore can be expected to be on time, meet the statutory requirements, supply the quantity and quality stated on the BDN, provide support and be able to address relevant issues.” IMO’s best practice guidance for fuel oil purchases/users says they “should strive to purchase fuel oil from quality-oriented fuel oil suppliers” and emphasises the importance of ordering the correct fuel for the ship and onboard fuel oil management to prevent operational issues. IMO’s best practice guidance for Member State/coastal State, meanwhile, reminds countries of their obligations under MARPOL Annex VI and encourages them to establish proper oversight over suppliers operating under their jurisdiction.
Implementing those best practices and principles would likely reduce problems related to fuel quality significantly.
IBIA’s general stated aims include to increase the professionalism and competence of all who work in the industry, and to promote improved standards, knowledge and understanding in the industry. In other words, continuously strive toward improving the overall quality of the global marine fuels sector and those who work in it. Bit by bit, we’re getting there.