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Euronav’s LNG-ready tanker order underscores shipping's decarbonisation dilemma

Those with rising exposure to LNG as a marine fuel include Shell, Idan Ofer’s Eastern Pacific, container line CMA CGM, and Chinese leasing bank BoComm Financial Leasing

Climate change goals raise questions about the longevity of LNG even as the commercial viability for zero-carbon fuels like ammonia and hydrogen remains far from resolution

EURONAV has placed an order for two very large crude carriers with dual-fuel engines that can be powered by liquefied natural gas, as pressure intensifies on the shipping industry to decarbonise faster and think beyond the transitional marine fuel.

The order, which includes an option for a third VLCC, brings the global orderbook to at least 165 newbuildings — excluding LNG carriers — over 10,000 dwt which will be fuelled by LNG, according to Lloyd’s List research.

The LNG-ready ships will include engine configurations to switch to ammonia as and when technology and regulation allows, as the shipowner strives to ensure the tankers have as many options as possible amid rising uncertainty about LNG’s longevity.

LNG has long been touted as a transitional fuel as the shipping industry strives to meet decarbonisation goals, including a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030.

But as newbuilding orders for LNG-fuelled ships at Asian shipyards begin to outpace those of conventionally fuelled vessels for the first time, climate change goals this week highlighted by Europe and the US underscore the fossil fuel’s long-term unsuitability.

Some of the most powerful voices in shipping are among the most heavily invested in LNG as a marine fuel including Shell, Idan Ofer’s Eastern Pacific, container line CMA CGM, and Chinese leasing bank BoComm Financial Leasing.

Grahaeme Henderson, who runs the shipping subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, says LNG is the lowest-emission marine fuel available at scale and that over time, zero-carbon hydrogen is likely to be the dominant future fuel.

Shell is the most exposed to LNG, with at least 36 newbuilding tankers worth around $2.3bn on order to which the oil giant has agreed long-term charters with their shipowners, Lloyd’s List research shows.

“The fastest pathway to net-zero, with the lowest total emissions, is the accelerated adoption of LNG, combined with widespread use of energy efficient technologies, while developing fuel cells ready to transition directly to zero emission fuels in the future,” Mr Henderson told the Singapore Maritime Technology Conference this week.

Shell aims to have more than half of its chartered fleet running on LNG by 2023.

The Euronav orders and Mr Henderson’s supportive LNG speech came as separate reports on decarbonising shipping released this week questioned the role of LNG and examined the absence of any defined pathway for shipping to reach climate change goals.

Carbon-free fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia are touted as the most likely, viable future fuels but are yet to be commercially available and cannot be produced at scale. As a result, battery-powered options for shortsea shipping are also gaining momentum.

Trillions of dollars of investment to build ships, provide renewable power generation to produce green hydrogen or ammonia and supply bunkering infrastructure, is needed to make the switch.

Class society ABS released a report showing climate change threatened some 43% of the 10bn tonnes of volumes shipped annually.

The View of the Value Chain report said LNG could reduce so-called tank-to-wake emissions (from the ship’s fuel tank to exhaust) by 20%, but its related methane emissions “make LNG fuel a transition fuel but not a long-term solution”.

Another report, by engine manufacturer MAN Energy Solutions, said a 2035 ban on using fossil fuels in shipping would achieve current decarbonisation and climate change targets.

The provider of ship engines for ammonia and LNG said that LNG was “not a blind alley investment” as engines can be retrofitted to run on carbon-free fuels.

Earlier this week, a World Bank report challenged the role of LNG even as a transition fuel, urging against public funding of needed bunkering infrastructure. It said LNG allowed for a theoretical cut in greenhouse gas emission but it was unclear whether it performed better than conventional fuel oils over the longer term.

Euronav, like most other shipowners, has recently entered the LNG-fuelled sector, and only because the financial risk can be managed by securing the backing of long-term charters from oil majors.

Earlier this year, the tanker owner bought two LNG or ammonia-ready suezmax tankers now under construction at Daehan shipyard for January 2022 delivery, at $54m each.

At least 44 containerships, 25 bulk carriers, 60 crude tankers and 31 product tankers that will have LNG fuel capability are on order, according to class society DNV’s Alternative Fuel Insight report.

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