IBIA comment on current problem fuels from the US Gulf

IBIA comment on current problem fuels from the US Gulf

A significant number of ships have experienced serious operational problems – chiefly sticking/seizing fuel pumps and in some cases filter blockages – after lifting bunker fuels from the US Gulf region since late March and during April/May. Most cases have reportedly been caused by intermediate fuel oils (IFOs) bunkered in the Houston area, though there are indications that similar problems have been caused by fuels bunkered in Panama.

At this stage there are differing views as to the root cause of this problem and how to mitigate the various risks. Several fuel testing agencies have reported that the fuels met ISO 8217 specifications during routine testing against the standard. It was only when vessels began encountering problems they began forensic-level investigative fuel analysis. Reports from testing agencies have identified certain commonalities between these fuels indicating they contain chemical contaminants from non-petroleum sources. The most commonly reported findings include phenols and Tall Oil but the reports from testing agencies are not conclusive and their investigations are continuing.

It seems almost certain, however, that the fuels contravene Clause 5 in ISO 8217 and Regulation 18.3 of MARPOL Annex VI which broadly state that fuels shall not contain any material in a concentration that adversely affects the performance of machinery.


Over the past 30 years there have been episodes around the world where ship owners faced a surge in quality issues. Usually, the origin of problem fuels has been limited to a specific geographic area. Unfortunately, the nature of the contamination can often be so obscure that no amount of routine analysis will make the defect apparent until the fuel proves defective in use and the subsequent detailed forensic examination identifies the cause.

In many of these episodes, the source of the contaminant is never adequately identified, but in summary, the root cause was a lack of control of the quality of cutter stock used in the marine pool.

IBIA has published a “Best practice guidance for suppliers for assuring the quality of bunkers delivered to ships” and we believe that by following the recommendation in in Chapter 4, in particular 4.2 – Quality control during production of bunkers and 4.3 – Quality control in the supply chain, would improve control of the blend components used and help to prevent such cases.


As an industry association we are obliged to address the concerns of our ship owner members. In this instance, a useful question to address for ship owners would be “What should I do to ensure that this doesn’t happen to me?”

It is difficult to answer this precisely when it hasn’t yet been universally agreed what “this” is; however, here are some pointers:

  • If you have recently bunkered in the Houston area or Panama, it is strongly recommended to get a solid overview of the quality of the fuel prior to using it.
  • If you do use it without going beyond routine ISO 8217 quality tests, pay close attention to fuel oil system components, in particular fuel pumps and filters.
  • Consult technical managers/chief engineers within your own company and/or from other technical service providers, including your bunker supplier(s).
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