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California cracking down on illegal vessel fuel starting in May

‘Small yet significant’ number of ships face fines for using dirtier fuel

A handful of vessel operators paid fuel violation settlements in 2020. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves & Port of L.A.)

Vessel owners and operators calling at California ports should prepare for more vigorous fuel testing by regulators, aimed at ensuring cargo ships remain compliant with state air pollution laws.

Starting May 1, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will begin “further analysis” of fuel samples taken during routine inspections of oceangoing vessels, the agency announced on Monday.

The fuel sulfur limit under California’s Ocean-Going Vessels (OGV) Fuels Regulation is 0.1%. However, “there is a small, yet significant, percentage of vessels that enter into California waters operating on contaminated fuels that may comply with this sulfur limit, but do not meet the specifications of a distillate grade fuel,” according to CARB.

In addition, in lieu of burning low-sulfur distillate fuel, ships calling at ports in California cannot use scrubbers inside their exhaust stacks to burn higher-sulfur residual fuel — known as bunker fuel — to meet sulfur emissions caps. “Studies have shown that the use of distillate fuel vs. lower sulfur residual grade fuel reduces the formation of directly emitted particulates from diesel engines considerably,” CARB stated.

By adding another level of scrutiny, CARB said its goal is to:

  • Clearly identify noncompliant vessels that are operating on contaminated fuels that may meet the sulfur limit as perhaps a residual grade ultra-low sulfur fuel oil would, but not meet the strict determination of a distillate-grade fuel, as specified in the regulation.
  • Eliminate excess ash particulate emissions that affect disadvantaged communities in and around California ports. 
  • Create a more level playing field by identifying vessels that are not following established fuel changeover procedures to mitigate these excessive emissions.

While thousands of ships call at California ports per year, just a handful of violators of CARB’s OGV fuels regulation in 2020 ended up having to pay settlement agreements. In April last year, containership operator CMA CGM reached a $165,920 settlement with CARB for failing to operate on compliant fuel. Other violators of the regulation last year included containership operators Hapag-Lloyd ($24,750 settlement) and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines ($10,000 settlement).

“The industry has had a strong history of compliance with the CARB rule,” Thomas Jelenic, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, told FreightWaves. “I expect vessel operators to continue to be compliant, which has been the normal practice for a decade now.”

To remain compliant, CARB recommends vessel owners and operators ensure that crews are properly trained, as well as:

  • Be sure that vessel operators/charterers have bunkered compliant distillate-grade fuel.
  • Have established procedures to eliminate all areas of potential contamination with residual-grade fuels before the fuel oil supply pumps. 
  • Have processes in place that will allow for the complete flushing of all residual-grade fuel oils from engines and fuel oil supply systems once fuel changeover has been completed.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.