Since April, there have been more than 150 cases of bad bunkers. That compares with an average of five cases per month over the past 10 years, says Lloyd's Register's global operations manager in the fuel analysis unit Fobas
The use of unusual blend components may increase in the run-up to the low-sulphur regulations taking effect as people try to avoid the high costs of compliance
LLOYD’S Register has recorded a significant increase in reports of fuel contamination.
Since April, there have been more than 150 cases, said Naeem Javaid, global operations manager at LR’s fuel oil analysis service Fobas. That compares with an average of five cases per month over the past 10 years.
In 2007, more than 30 vessels in the Fobas programme were affected. That was the last time bad bunkers were reported on a large scale.
“This time, the issue is much more severe,” Mr Javaid said.
The unit is investigating 60-70 cases of fuel contamination from the US Gulf area, he said. Half of those are confirmed where ships reported damage or operational problems to their engines. Some vessels had to be towed as a direct result of using bad fuel.
The other half are still under investigation to assess the quality of the fuel, Mr Javaid added.
In Panama, 20 cases were reported, most of them confirmed.
And in Singapore, 15 cases are being investigated, one of which had an “alarmingly high level of contaminants”, he said. In one instance, a vessel in Hong Kong was found with contaminated fuel, but it may well be linked with fuels from Singapore, he said, without naming the client or vessel concerned.
In almost all the cases, different fatty acids were detected with varying concentrations.
The presence of fatty acids suggests the fuel contained some by-products of biofuels production.
“There is no reason for such fatty acids to be present in marine fuel and suggests some serious issues with the supply chain integrity, or it may be a deliberate dumping of some waste products into the fuel supply chain,” he said.
Other contaminants found in the fuel included phenolic compounds and resin acids, which points to the presence of tall oil, a by-product of the wood pulp industry, which can damage the engine fuel system components.
Mr Javaid expects the use of “unusual blend components” may increase in the run-up to the International Maritime Organization’s low-sulphur regulations, which take effect on January 1, 2020.
Intertanko’s technical director Dragos Rauta echoed the views in a podcast with Lloyd’s List.
“There have been tens of ships, well over 100, that have had breakdowns, in engines and propulsion,” he said, highlighting the risks to crew in the event of a power outage. The risks increase in the case of laden tankers, he added.
This is the reason that Intertanko published a critical review, urging governments to take action on the growing issue.
“There is a lack of interest in demanding quality control,” he said, adding that there is also a lack of a regulatory system demanding audits of various stakeholders.
As a result, all stakeholders in the marine fuel supply chain need to sit down together to find a solution, LR’s Mr Javaid said.
Additional testing at the terminal should also be considered to establish whether fuel is free from contaminants, Mr Javaid said.
“At the moment, only standard specs are provided which, in view of recent cases, is not enough to give assurance to the shipowners that the fuel they are buying is free from any unwanted contaminants. The whole fuel supply needs to be checked/tested to provide assurance of compliance,” he noted.
Shipowners also need to be more strict in their criteria for fuel sourcing, he added. This can be achieved by requesting detailed analysis of the fuel from shore terminal, storage tank, and barge tank using fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry techniques from the fuel supplier.
“Furthermore, ships can look at their bunker strategies to ensure that bunkers are planned in a way that ships do not need to use newly bunkered fuels until the fuel sample is analysed on behalf of the ship,” he said.
Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Standardisation committee is planning more work with the supply industry to see whether more can be done to provide greater clarity in the marine fuel standard ISO 8217, taking these incidents into account, according to LR, and may propose further guidance as to what is acceptable and not acceptable to be present in marine fuel.
ISO 8217 states that the fuels should not contain anything that can adversely affect machinery performance or be harmful to machinery. Only petroleum hydrocarbons from the marine fuel refining stream should be present in the fuel and nothing else, with the exception of some synthetic fuels that have been included in the latest 2017 edition.
At present, the wording, although providing assurance, is open to interpretation.