What is good fuel quality, should it be regulated, and will you pay?

What is good fuel quality, should it be regulated, and will you pay?

Fuel quality, or ‘bad’ quality, often raises passions but is fuel quality getting worse? Should fuel quality be regulated? How do you define good fuel quality, and are owners willing to pay extra to guarantee it?  These are some of the questions discussed at two recent bunker conferences IBIA attended, the 37th International Bunker Conference (IBC 37) in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the end of April, and the 7th Annual Platts European Bunker Fuel Conference Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in late May.

As many expected, the quality of residual fuels appears to have improved since the start of 2015 because the low sulphur fuel oil (LSFO) blends disappeared from the market. There was a big drop in residual fuel off-specs in 2015 compared to the period 2012 through to the start of 2015, Tim Wilson of Lloyd’s Register Marine (FOBAS) told IBC 37. For distillates, the main 2015 change was an increase in off-specs for pour point (PP), whereas all other off-specs were down including, flash point, he said.

Charlotte Rojgaard from Bureau Veritas (BV) told IBC 37 that about one third of marine gas oil (MGO) sold in Singapore exceeds the summer minimum PP, which is not a problem there, but can create serious problems if the vessel still has that MGO in a fuel tank with no heating capacity when entering a cold region.

Fuel quality may be slightly better for the parameters listed in table 1 and 2 of ISO 8217, Malcolm Cooper from Veritas Petroleum Services told the Platts conference in Rotterdam, but he said it was getting worse for non-specified contaminants, meaning there is more need for fuel testing that screens for unspecified substances that are increasingly recognized as being troublesome. This can help, but will never guarantee that the fuel won’t create problems when used.

The Port of Rotterdam has come up with a list of undesirable substances that should not be in bunker fuel. This has now been accepted by the Dutch Ministry and will go to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for review, Ronald Backers from the port authority told the Platts conference. 

This once again raises the question as to whether fuel quality should be legislated. There have been calls for this at the IMO because of safety concerns and sulphur limit breaches. It shouldn’t, was the short answer from DFDS bunker manager Steffen Kortegaard. He said that out of some 1,200 stems made daily around the world, we very rarely see ships with engine damage or severe problems.

It all boils down to money, said BV’s Rojgaard. If you want to regulate quality, we have to first define what a good fuel is, and then ask how much are we are all willing to pay for that, she pointed out. The answer, it seems, is not very much.  Most ship operators look only at price, according to Daniel Rose from bunker trader Intgr8 Fuels. He said some are beginning to accept paying $2-4 per tonne extra to ensure better quality and service but there are not that many. “We are prepared to pay a little bit more – not much – for care free, problem free delivery,” Heidmar’s bunker purchaser Sia Ratajczak told the Platts conference, adding that the last thing she wants on her desk is a quality claim. People might say they are ready to pay more for better quality, but in reality they are not, especially now with shipping markets under such great economic pressure, she commented.

Conference chairman Trevor Harrison, a maritime arbitrator well known for his active engagement with IBIA and wide-ranging experience of the bunker industry, summarised the mood of the debate as being that it is not what you want, but what you can live with, that determines fuel quality. Provided that fuels supplied comply fully with their contract specification, a properly maintained ship with a competent crew should have no problem using them, and if the price reflects the quality, then that is something that both buyers and suppliers can live with.

By Unni Einemo

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