Renewed doubts about the implementation of the 2020 sulphur limit, sown by media reports ahead of the 73rd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee, have hopefully been put to bed. But fears regarding the safety of using compliant fuels are not going away. The question is, what can the IMO actually do about it in a way that doesn’t undermine efforts to ensure compliance with the approaching regulation? Striking the right balance here is a challenge.
Media speculation was rife ahead of MEPC 73 that a proposal from a group of large flag states and shipping organisations, suggesting an experience building phase (EBP) due to concerns about the safety of low-sulphur fuels, was a ruse to delay implementation of the 2020 sulphur limit. However, during discussions of the document, MEPC 73/5/14, the co-sponsors stressed they were fully committed to the 1 January 2020 implementation date.
They said the focus of the EBP was to allow IMO to monitor the implementation of the 0.50% sulphur limit by collecting and analysing data on non-availability and fuel quality issues to allow MEPC to identify aspects of the implementation that work well and to shed light on issues that are less effective and require further attention. The proposal also said the EBP would include a systematic and evidence-based process for reviewing and possibly improving the regulatory framework under MARPOL Annex VI.
During discussions at MEPC 73, the proposal received substantial support, especially from the countries that had also supported a proposal from Bangladesh to delay the effective date on a ban on the carriage of bunkers above 0.50% sulphur. However, a majority of countries supported adopting the ban to take effect from 1 March, 2020.
In discussions about both these proposals, the prevailing view was that a delay to adopting the ban, and talk of an EBP resulting in a potential review of MARPOL Annex VI, would send the wrong signal and cause uncertainty about implementation of the 2020 sulphur limit. The open-ended suggestion that the EBP might lead to future regulatory amendments was seen as particularly worrisome as parallels would inevitably be drawn to the EPB and implementation delay associated with the Ballast Water Management Convention.
IBIA, in conversations with some of the co-sponsors of MEPC 73/5/14 prior to the meeting, had pointed out similar concerns to them and also queried which data they envisage should be collected, highlighting that the IMO already has GISIS modules for reporting non-availability cases and failure of fuel oil suppliers to meet the requirements specified in regulation 14 or 18 of Annex VI. However, the data format in the GISIS systems may not lend themselves to effective analysis.
Another criticism of the EBP proposal was its vagueness as it set no clear timelines for the EBP which it said could consist of a data collection phase, a data analysis phase, followed by a review and possible regulatory amendments.
On the other hand, many agreed that data collection has merits, but it should not be called an EBP as that sows doubt about the implementation.
In summary, it was agreed to invite more refined proposals to MEPC 74 with the scope restricted to how enhance the implementation of Regulation 18 of MARPOL Annex VI, in particular to report issues around fuel oil quality and non-availability, including proposals for ways to enhance the GISIS module for data collection and analysis.
Meanwhile, IBIA was also a co-sponsor of MEPC 73/5/17, advising the Committee about the progress made on an initiative to develop industry guidance as part of a multi-stakeholder exercise to address the safety issues associated with new fuel blends or fuel types.
Two expert groups of representatives from 16 organisations across the shipping industry, the refining industry, bunker suppliers, standards organisations and other interested parties have been established and the drafting of the cross industry guidance is now underway. A key objective of this initiative, set in motion by IPIECA and OCIMF at the ISWG in July, is to create a unified industry guidance that helps mitigate any safety and operational issues that may arise.
The next IMO meeting where fuel safety issues will be addressed is the 100th session the Maritime Safety Committee in early December.
Report by Unni Einemo: firstname.lastname@example.org