Calls for tighter quality control in shipping

The wave of contaminated fuel that has clogged and damaged engines on hundreds of oil tankers and container vessels in past months has led shippers to demand stricter quality controls around the world.

Because large volumes of fuel oil are blended with so-called cutter stocks by suppliers and sold on through an extensive network of middlemen before finding their way into ships’ fuel tanks, any contamination can spread quickly and be difficult to trace back to its source.

Mads P Zacho, CEO at Danish shipping company J Lauritzen said that “we strongly believe that the (marine) fuel industry should get a grip on the situation and take on the responsibility it has in these matters”.

The contamination first emerged on the US Gulf coast in January this year, but has since turned up in Singapore and in other ports in Asia.

The International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA) said in late-July that it was “not useful to seek to apportion fault when there is no agreement as to what the root cause is”.

Lloyd’s Register has estimated that around 200 to 300 ships could have been affected globally.

Oil giant BP was reported by Reuters, citing an anonymous source, to have been hit by cases of contaminated fuel that had cost “big money and big delays”.

Association of independent tanker owners and operators Intertanko has said that “this lack of investigation into such a serious breach of safety norms is totally inadequate and hugely disappointing”.

Regulations governing marine fuel standards have been established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but John Bradshaw, technical director at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) told Reuters that “in practice few countries appear to be properly discharging these obligations”, adding that “most countries take a position that it is a commercial matter between fuel suppliers and purchasers and that they have no obligation in ensuring the quality of fuel oil supplied to ships in areas under their jurisdiction”.

The IBIA said that a common, but speculative, view was that the current wave of contagion likely came from “inappropriate cutter stocks used in the production of bunkers at one or more refineries and/or terminals”.

This analysis was worrying because it could therefore be inferred that problems with contaminated fuels might become an even bigger problem in 2020 because there will be a 0.50% mass sulphur fuel maximum, which will require a lot more blending than the current 3.50% maximum, and could therefore see a larger proportion of inappropriate cutter stocks being added to bunkers. Intertanko said that, if the fuel delivered to ships continued to lack quality controls, that could undermine “a safe and smooth enforcement” of the 2020 rules.

Dragos Rauta, technical director at Intertanko, said that “if those responsible for providing good, lasting quality fuels … show the same lack of interest as shown so far in addressing and solving the root causes of current contamination problems, the 2020 landscape only looks more troublesome for ship owners”.