On January 1, 2020 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) implemented new fuel standards for oil-powered vessels, except those equipped with exhaust scrubbers to remove pollutants. In the absence of a scrubber, the IMO 2020 rule stipulates that ships' bunkers contain less than 0.5% sulfur. Using a scrubber allows the vessel to burn cheaper high-sulfur fuel. Last March, a shipowner’s estimated $2.5 million scrubber investment for a 2-MMbbl Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) would take just over three years to recover, based on average fuel prices during the first quarter of 2019. This year, barely a month after the new regulation came into force, the payback period has shortened dramatically, to less than a year, though the coronavirus’s effect on shipping demand and fuel prices, among other factors, could again put payout timing at risk. Today, we look at changing price spreads between high-sulfur and low-sulfur bunker and the scrubber payback economics that suggest a rosier outlook for vessel owners who invested in scrubber installations, at least for now.
Some shipowners plan to comply with the IMO 2020 deadlines for limiting sulfur in ship emissions by installing scrubber devices to clean the exhaust generated by burning less expensive high-sulfur bunker fuel. For many, this may work out to be more economical, at least in the interim, than using more costly IMO 2020-compliant fuel with sulfur content of no more than 0.5% or converting the vessel to run on an altogether different fuel such as liquefied natural gas. However, narrowing “sulfur spreads” this year have put that compliance strategy at risk by tripling the time it would take for shipowners to recoup their scrubber investments. Today, we continue an analysis of the changing economics of scrubber installation in the run-up to IMO 2020.
In January 2015 new international regulations came into force that reduced the permitted sulfur content in ships “bunker” fuel in Northern European and North American coastal regions. So far, international shipping companies and cruise lines have been responding to these rules primarily by switching to marine gasoil (MGO), burning lower-sulfur fuel oil, or sticking with higher-sulfur fuel oil and adding “scrubbers” to capture most of the sulfur being emitted by their ships’ engines. More recently, though, some of the shipping sector’s biggest players have unveiled plans to boost the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a bunker fuel, figuring that LNG bunkering will not only help them meet existing regulations but the tougher rules likely to be implemented over the next few years. Today, we begin a short series on the opportunities and challenges associated with shifting ships from fuel oil to LNG.