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Scrubber lobby on the defensive after Singapore ban

The debate over open or closed loop scrubbers is now a political question, rather than a scientific one. The industry scrubber lobby is now arguing against what it says are ‘arbitrary restrictions, unsupported by any science that impacts the business and operations of hundreds of global shipping companies and thousands of vessels’

Several shipowners now expect further restrictions on open-loop scrubbers, despite manufacturers insisting that environmental concerns have not been scientifically addressed

SHIPOWNERS and scrubber manufacturers are preparing to step up lobbying efforts to defend the use of open-loop scrubbers in the wake of Singapore’s decision last week to ban the exhaust gas cleaning system in the run up to the 2020 sulphur cap.

While the decision to prohibit discharge of wash water from open-loop exhaust gas scrubbers inside Singapore port waters has been branded a political response, rather than scientific decision by the scrubber lobby group Clean Shipping Alliance, several shipowners now fear further restrictions.

“We are concerned about any port that is willing to make arbitrary restrictions, unsupported by any science, that impact the business and operations of hundreds of global shipping companies and thousands of vessels,” said a spokesperson for the Clean Shipping Alliance, a lobby group backed by several leading shipowners which have collectively invested billions of dollars in scrubbers.

Open-loop scrubbers are already banned in Belgium, California, Massachusetts, along Germany’s Rhine river and last week China’s Maritime Safety Administration confirmed that they would not be allowed for use in inland water transport.

While China has reaffirmed that the country had no plans to bar ships from using open-loop scrubbers in its coastal areas, as long as the equipment meets standards approved by the International Maritime Organization, Singapore’s status as a major global transhipment hub means that this is no longer an isolated question of inland restrictions. 

According to several shipowners Lloyd’s List has spoken to in the wake of the unexpected Singapore ban announced last week, the possibility that other states will now follow suit now has to be considered likely. All eyes are on European states with strong environmental credentials to protect.

While any decision to ban a “pollution source” within the European Union would be a question for individual member states, a spokesman for the European Commission confirmed to Lloyd’s List that it “has shown, and has interest in, facilitating the collection of information in relation to the open loops scrubber acceptance in EU ports”.

Lloyd’s List understands that this watching brief from the Commission stems from encouragement via maritime stakeholder groups and once data has been collated that a report would be published.

Scrubber manufacturers have long held that environmental concerns regarding open-loop scrubbers discharging sulphur into the ocean is unfounded. Sulphur is transformed to harmless sulphate when it is neutralised with sea water, however, the scrubber also washes all other impurities from the exhaust gas in addition to sulphur. And in many open-loop mechanisms these impurities are not neutralised by sea water.

One major European manufacturer of closed-loop scrubbers told Lloyd’s List that this discharge can contain arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper and mercury, to name but a few of the ingredients that make up this cocktail of “thick, black, porridge-like sludge” collected by closed-loop systems ready for discharge at waste reception facilities.

While shipowners contacted by Lloyd’s List concede that the onus is now on the industry to convince port authorities and states that a filtered open-loop scrubber is equivalent, to all intents and purposes to a closed-loop model, several privately concede that this is now a political issue as much a case of providing scientific evidence.

“It’s a battle that has to be fought quickly,” said one shipowner who has already invested several million dollars installing scrubbers.

“We find it particularly surprising that such a radical decision would be made without trying to understand the actual environmental performance of open loop scrubbers by investigating with or even consulting the companies that have committed significant resources in researching, testing and investing in this technology,” said the CSA in a statement issued to Lloyd’s List. 

While the CSA is preparing to continue its lobbying efforts, many owners are increasingly resigned to the fact that their scrubber investments are increasingly looking like a short-term fix that may need upgrading.

“The outcome of Singapore’s decision is that you will have to burn compliant fuel, unless you have a hybrid scrubber where you can store waste onboard, but probably you can’t do that either,” said Maersk chief operating officer Søren Toft. “The scrubbers that we are testing… can be converted because we believe that it is likely there will be more regulation coming. So, we are prepared for that”.

Despite the negative publicity from the Singapore ban, the CSA says that the open loop scrubber market is strong and in fact appears to be rapidly accelerating.

Globally, more than 150 shipping companies have already invested in the technology as effective solutions for 2020, according to CSA figures.

Forecasts of scrubber uptake vary wildly, but a conservative estimate suggests that around 3,000 units will have been installed by 2020 indicating a total fleet-wide investment of around $6bn.

 

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