January 1, 2020, marked a big change for marine vessels. The IMO (International Maritime Organization) has implemented a significant reduction in the sulfur content for the shipping industry in 2020. The reduction brings the previous 3.5% sulfur content (bunker fuel), plummeting down to the new 0.5% sulfur requirement. Goldman Sachs estimates the monetary impact could be as much as $240 billion during the 2020 calendar year.
Over 90% of the global trade takes place via ocean travel. Oil tankers, general cargo, and bulk cargo are the 3 largest participants for ocean travel. These vessels combine to consume approximately 3.5 million barrels daily, which is just 7% of the daily global consumption. Although the daily percentage may not seem to be that much, that 7% bunker fuel burning accounts for 90% of the entire globes sulfur emissions. Two of the most common repercussions from high sulfur levels are, respiratory illness and acid rain, which will inevitably lead to crop failure.
The current options for the freight vessels to adapt to the sulfur emission standards are:
- Add sulfur scrubbers to the exhaust system of the vessels to trap sulfur exhaust gasses.
- Switch to the more expensive, lower sulfur fuel.
- Reengineer current and future vessels to accept LNG (Liquified Natural Gas).
Currently there are only 1% of ships that have added the sulfur scrubbing technology to their exhaust systems. The problem with the sulfur scrubbers is that they do not eliminate the sulfur content from the emissions, they simply discharge the excess sulfur emission into the ocean waters.
Recently in Chinese waters, there have been two ships tagged for not following the new IMO 2020 regulations. The sulfur content test resulted in 0.6777%. The indication from this test would seem to show that the current 0.5% sulfur fuel was mixed with the previous 3.5% sulfur fuel. The previous 3.5% sulfur fuel may not have been fully drained prior to the new IMO regulations becoming active. It is currently unclear what the repercussions of the higher sulfur content will be at this point.