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Viewpoint: Facing green consequences

The green shipping lobby have brushed aside inconvenient truths about low-sulphur fuels causing engines to lose power and failed to resolve concerns about pollution from scrubbers. The intentions behind their red tape may turn out to be misguided and exacerbate all of the shipping industry’s existing problems while doing next to nothing to help the environment

The perfect storm of environmental red tape engulfing the shipping industry looks likely to prove the maxim that the road to hell is paved with good intentions

THE saying goes that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so in the feverish efforts to de-carbonise the world and make the air we breathe cleaner, there is no such thing as a quick fix.

You might be reminded of that party game “consequences” because every move we carry out in the industry to make shipping more “sustainable” produces an unanticipated downside.

There was an example of this from the world of engineering just the other day with the publication of a Marine Accident Investigation Branch report into the grounding in Calais of the ferry Pride of Kent, after a traumatic few minutes in gusty weather when everything seemed to go pear-shaped.

One of the root causes was the use on board this ship of ultra-low sulphur fuel oil, used with the very best of green intentions, but producing fuel pump problems that caused power to be lost to main engines and thrusters at the crucial moment. The company has gone back to marine gasoil for this ship, while it plans its next moves.

You might suggest that this was no big deal as there was not much damage done, with the Marine Accident Investigation Branch only becoming involved because Pride of Kent was a passenger ship.

But it must be regarded as a pointer to something that is happening all over the world, as ships are switched to new and perhaps untried fuels to comply with the need to “de-sulphur” the diesel engine.

Ask any pilot who is working in low-sulphur areas and they will tell you of engines misfiring, losing power or generally misbehaving, invariably at some moment crucial to manoeuvring in confined waters, all of which is attributed to “fuel problems”.

I suppose you can compensate by employing lots more tugs as a precaution, as long as you are assured that the tugs’ machinery won’t be similarly suffering from hiccups just when you need their power most.

Low-sulphur delusions

You might suggest that these are just teething problems and when engineers have adjusted their arrangements to more regularly de-wax their injectors or tune their engines to the new fuel dispensation, all will settle down. Except that these “fuel problems” have been now happening with unvarying regularity for the last five or six years, since low-sulphur fuels came on the scene.

The situation is not exactly helped as ship operators are still managing to shave another engineer officer or rating off the ship’s complement, when arguably they should be reinforcing it.

There is no doubt about it — these problems will only proliferate as the demand for various formulations of ultra-low sulphur fuels grows.

It is probably a good time to be investing in fuel-testing laboratories, and moreover, to encourage people to use them.

But fuel is just one of the factors in the “perfect storm” of environmental regulations and changes that must be accommodated by the shipping industry.

The debate over scrubbers versus clean fuel is now approaching the heat generated by the Brexit debate, with no easy answers, no matter what the voices of the equipment manufacturers might suggest.

Might all these controversies encourage the use of LNG as a fuel at a greater rate?

There is something of an LNG bunkering infrastructure appearing, at least in the mainstream shipping areas.

While there is bound to be a green backlash against this fossil fuel, and a dread of methane to be exploited by informed activists, there may be some years of good growth ahead.

Mind you, there are concerns about the variable calorific value of LNG which may well give engineers pause for thought, once it becomes a fuel of choice for many.

But the general demonising of Dr Diesel’s wonderful engine, which is still capable of improvements in efficiency and sustainability, probably will grow, as activists are not interested in reality and are convinced that a battery-driven very large ore carrier is just a matter of time and will.

One suspects that ballast management will still produce plenty of unexpected consequences as the take-up of largely untried machinery increases. It didn’t seem that difficult, once we had identified the problems of alien species transmission.

That, it is worth reminding ourselves, was around 40 years ago. In the interim, we have had blackouts caused by inadequate generating capacity because of the demands of ballast pumping, the pumps themselves requiring replacement as they have been worn out by constant, rather than intermittent, use and a lot more fuel burned on passage.

Perhaps the concept of a ballast-free ship should have been pursued with greater diligence by clever designers, which might have saved money in the long run.

Finally, there is a reminder that the arrival on the scene of giant containerships, which were supposed to benefit the environment (not forgetting their owners) may have not been quite so sustainable as the lines initially suggested.

Sure, the ships emit less on passage than the three smaller ships they each replace.

But as the ports struggle to handle their gigantic loads, it is worth thinking of those dozens of diesel-hauled trains, and feeder ships, hundreds of barges and thousands of trucks, all sitting around their terminals pumping stuff we don’t want to breathe into the atmosphere, while those huge dumps of boxes are collected and cleared over many days. Consequences.

rjmgrey@dircon.co.uk

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