The clock is ticking for international shipping companies, cruise lines and others to determine how they will meet the much more stringent standard for bunker fuel sulfur content that will kick in just over two years from now. While many shipowners will likely meet the International Marine Organization’s 0.5% sulfur cap in January 2020 by shifting to low-sulfur marine distillate or a heavy fuel oil/distillate blend, a smaller number are investing in ships fueled by LNG. LNG easily complies with the sulfur cap, and while it costs more than high-sulfur HFO — the bunker that currently dominates world shipping — it is less expensive than the low-sulfur distillate and HFO/distillate blends that will be needed to meet the new standard. But there are catches with LNG, including the need to dedicate more onboard space for fuel tanks and (even more importantly) the lack of LNG fueling infrastructure in a number of ports. Today, we discuss the short and long-term outlook for LNG as a marine fuel.
As we said in Against the Wind, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) — a specialized agency of the United Nations — in recent years has been implementing rules that gradually reduce emissions of sulfur (sulphur for many of our non-American readers) from the engines that power the 50,000-plus tankers, dry bulkers, container ships and cruise ships that ply international waters. In January 2012, the “global” cap on sulfur content in marine fuel (blue bars in Figure 1) was reduced to 3.5% (from the old 4.5%) and in January 2020 — only 24 and a half months from now — it will be reduced to a much stiffer 0.5%. There are even tougher standards already in place in the IMO’s Emission Control Areas (ECAs) for sulfur, which include Europe’s Baltic and North Seas and areas within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. and Canadian coasts. In July 2010, the ECA sulfur limit in marine fuel (red bars) was reduced to 1% (from the old 1.5%), and in January 2015, the limit was ratcheted down again to a very stringent 0.1% — a standard that will remain in force within the ECAs when the 0.5% sulfur cap for the rest of the world becomes effective in January 2020.