Delegates at the International Maritime Organization’s meeting on the marine environment have started their week long meeting that includes discussions on the implementation of the IMO 2020 sulfur cap, with a lengthy debate on process following interventions that sought to maintain a second test on marine fuel to ensure that it meets the new sulfur regulation.
The IMO regulation takes effect on January 1, 2020 and will limit the amount of sulfur in marine fuels to 0.5 percent globally except in emission control areas where the limit will be 0.1 percent.
Regulatory authorities will enforce the rule through samples that will be tested and verified. Two samples are to be tested, one each for the supplier and buyer of the fuel and one sample, known as the MAROL sample will be retained in case of any dispute. If there is a dispute the retained sample would be sent for testing and verification that it is IMO 2020-compliant.
These tests could be crucial for cargo owners because if the vessel is deemed to be operating on non-compliant fuels it could be delayed for a number days while it offloads the non-compliant fuel and refuels as well as going through any legal process that is triggered by the tests, delaying any just-in-time deliveries.
There is some skepticism on how uniformly this regulation will be enforced (currently only 65 nations having transferred this regulation into their own laws). However, nearly half of the nations that have made the regulation law are member states of the European Union (EU). Therefore, their enforcement officers can act on non-compliance. The United States has not yet codified the sulfur cap in its laws. Some 90 percent of all ships call at either EU or U.S. ports every year.
A preliminary meeting to this week’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) 74 of the IMO had discussed the issue at length and decided that a single MARPOL sample would be sufficient, but a working paper presented to MEPC on 13 May suggests that this could lead to unfair and unnecessary litigation.
The International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA) and the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) presented a paper that suggests that one in 20 samples tested in two different laboratories shows different results. In “practice” tests, that one test showed “compliant” at 0.47 percent sulfur, but the non-compliant test recorded sulfur levels of 0.51 percent in the MARPOL sample.
“A second option to address the unintended consequence of the simplification would be to apply the same procedure as has been agreed for the in-use and onboard samples, implying that no further action is taken unless the third-party laboratory’s analysis demonstrates with at least 95 percent confidence that the fuel oil is non-compliant,” said the IBIA and IPIECA joint paper.
The joint paper essentially reopens a debate that was discussed at length at the preliminary meeting known as the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response or PPR 6, which took place in February 2019. The agreed way forward at PPR 6 was that a single MARPOL sample would be sufficient in order to simplify the verification system for IMO 2020.
Many countries, mainly from the EU, were opposed to the return to the more complex testing regime and wanted to stick to the decision taken at the PPR 6 discussions. However, the IBIA and IPIECA proposals gained some support from mainly smaller nations. Among them was the Cook Islands, with a population of 17,000, voicing its concerns that fuel suppliers may be treated unfairly.
Support for the Cook Islands came from the U.S. and India among others, who argued that they could not understand why there was opposition to a stronger verification system that would prevent miscarriages of justice and unnecessary litigation.
As a result, the MEPC chairman, Hideaki Saito, ruled that the IBIA and IPIECA document should be put forward to the working group for further discussion with the group reporting back on Friday, 17 May as this week’s meeting is the last before the regulation is due to come into force in January 2020.
Cook Islands objected to this course of action, however, on the grounds that it was a small country and could not send enough people to IMO to cover the plenary session and other important working group meetings and as a result the issue could not be properly discussed in the working group, but should be debated within the plenary session.
Again Chairman Saito said he would stick to his original decision to send the paper for discussion at the working group level and suggested that any country that believed this was an important issue should attend this group to make its voice heard.
The Cook Islands representative, said “I am reluctant to say this, but I am unable to follow your sage advice.” He argued that Saito was asking him to miss other important debates to attend the working group on IMO 2020.
To which a visibly irritated Saito responded, “If you wish to discuss this issue in plenary then I can give you another five days [to extend the meeting] for this discussion.
However, some delegates feel that the EU position is unsustainable and is the result of the inflexibility of the EU with its block vote of 28 nations. Delegates from the EU agree to a position prior to the MEPC and are unable to change their position. In some cases this can mean that the bloc appears unreasonably intransigent.
“It is possible that a sample taken can be contaminated in pipes or there is some other minor problem that results in a false reading, in these cases a second test would prove useful,” said one delegate.
He went on to say that The Netherlands had mentioned that it had never come across this problem, which is most likely because it is in an emission control area, where ships operate mostly on distillate fuel and not blended fuel so the problem is unlikely to affect that country. However, with blended fuels there could be a number of reasons that a fuel sample gives a false reading and a second test would be able to verify this in most cases.
However, the United Kingdom told delegates that the issue was “complex” and that it should be returned to the working group for further discussion so that “delegates can understand the history to the decision taken by PPR 6.”
Saito concluded the debate by returning the issue to the working group immediately after the lunch break.