From 1st January 2020, ferry operators on the Irish Sea will have to comply with new regulations regarding the amount of Sulphur used in the fuel powering their vessel's main engines.
From January, new worldwide Sulphur regulations will apply onboard vessels, limiting the Sulphur content to 0.5% of the fuel. This regulation is designed to significantly reduce the amount of Sulphur oxide produced by ships and therefore have major health and environmental benefits for the planet, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts. Sulphur oxides are known to cause respiratory symptoms, acid rain and harm plant life.
The main type of "bunker" oil for ships is heavy fuel oil, which is derived from crude oil by distillation. Sulphur can be found in crude oil and when combusted is expelled in ship emissions. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships has been used to reduce Sulphur oxide emissions from ships since 2005.
Until 31st December 2019, the limit for the Sulphur content of ship fuel remains at 3.5% for ferries operating outside the Emission Control Areas. The Irish Sea is currently outside of the Emission Control Areas, but from 1st January 2020 operators will be legally required to ensure their vessels comply with the new lower limit. Alternatively, they can change the fuel that is used or the way in which emissions are reduced.
New types of low Sulphur fuel such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and biofuel are available, but they cost more than the current fuel. Fuel is a large portion of the total cost for a ferry operator and this unavoidable, additional expense will be passed onto customers in the form of new low Sulphur surcharge. This will likely be passed on through increased BAF/MARPOL rates, although some operators have stated that they will replace their current BAF surcharge with a new fuel surcharge. The new surcharge will likely be in place from December to ensure compliance with the 1st January deadline. The switchover can be a complicated process and non-compliant fuel will have to be completely removed from each vessel.
Phil Simpson, Director at Freightlink, has stated;
"As the Irish Seas exemption from the EU Sulphur Directive comes to an end, January 2020 will see the Irish Sea ferries come under the same rules as other shipping areas. Whilst cost increases are never welcome, this date has been known for some years and European Hauliers have paid such surcharges on different shipping lanes for a number of years."
As an alternative but expensive option, ferries can continue to purchase heavy fuel oil but install 'scrubbers' to reduce the output of Sulphur oxide expelled in exhaust gases. This solution is controversial. Many ports including the port of Dublin are banning the use of open-loop scrubber designs on environmental grounds. Irish Sea operators Seatruck and P&O Ferries have already announced that they will be using the new 0.5% fuel rather than scrubbers.
It is worth remembering that due to the amount of cargo and passengers carried by a ferry, they are still one of the most energy efficient modes of transport available. By investing in better energy efficiency technologies, vessels can burn less fuel and therefore produce lower emissions.