Japan has decided it will support the use of open-loop scrubbers aboard ships and discourage other jurisdictions from banning the discharge of water from such units as the deadline for the International Maritime Organization’s global sulfur limit rule for marine fuels draws nearer.
The IMO will cap global sulfur content in marine fuels at 0.5% from January 1 next year, down from 3.5% currently. This applies outside the designated emission control areas where the limit is already 0.1%. Shipowners will have to either burn cleaner, more expensive fuels or install scrubber units for burning HSFO to comply with the rule.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said recently at an IMO subcommittee meeting that Japan had made “a pickoff” throw to moves by several countries to ban discharging water.
“Japan’s move to support the use of open-loop scrubbers appears to be ‘making the pickoff’ to the increasing ban on scrubbers in some countries,” Takayuki Nogami, chief economist at Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp., told S&P Global Platts.
MOVES TO BAN OPEN-LOOP SCRUBBERS
This comes at a time when the adequate availability of 0.5% sulfur bunker fuels to comply with the IMO 2020 rule remains a concern and doubts about open-loop scrubbers and their efficacy could potentially pressure LSFO supply.
In January, the Port of Fujairah issued a notice banning the use of open-loop scrubbers in its port waters.
Singapore is set to implement a similar ban from January 1, 2020,while China has already done so from January 1 this year in its emission control areas covering inland waters and most of its coastline, including Bohai Bay waters.
Discharge from open-loop scrubbers had also been banned earlier in many other regions including Belgium, California and Massachusetts in the US, along Germany’s Rhine River, as well as the Irish Port of Waterford.
An open-loop scrubber uses seawater to remove sulfur oxides from the engine exhaust. The sulfur oxide in the exhaust reacts with the water to form sulfuric acid, which is then washed back into the sea after neutralization.
Some industry sources argue that open-loop scrubbers do not address environmental issues as they simply take sulfur out of the air and put it into the ocean.
Others argue that viewpoint is an oversimplification that ignores the fact the IMO has set out guidelines for cleaning systems that include washwater discharge and monitoring criteria to safeguard against environmental damage.
Japan’s support for open-loop scrubbers comes after the European Commission on February 8 submitted to the IMO a proposal calling for “evaluation and harmonization” of scrubber discharges across all ports globally.
MLIT told the IMO Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response, which met in London over February 18-22, that Tokyo will not ban discharging water from open-loop scrubbers after conducting its own environmental assessment.
“Japan concluded that the discharge water with chemical substances such as SOx [sulfur oxides], PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and heavy metals cannot cause unacceptable effects either on the marine organisms or on the seawater quality around Japan,” MLIT said in its presentation material at the IMO subcommittee meetings sent to Platts.
“Therefore, Japan is of the position that there would not be a scientific justification to prohibit the use of open-looped scrubber, as long as the IMO’s discharge criteria were met,” the ministry said.
IMPACT ON BUNKER FUELS DEMAND
In fiscal 2016-17 (April-March), Japan’s annual bunker fuel demand was around 8.72 million kl, or 54.85 million barrels, out of which HSFO accounted for 6.66 million kl, according to a research conducted by the Petroleum Association of Japan.
Oil industry analysts said Japan’s move to support open-loop scrubbers may support its bunker fuel demand as ships installed with the scrubbers may call at the country for bunkering.
“Japan’s position as a bunker supply base may improve as it opts to allow access for ships with open-loop scrubbers,” Nogami said.
PAJ has conducted studies with Japanese refiners looking at scenarios, including the prospects of processing light and low sulfur crude oil, as well as the blending of export-grade gasoil to create a new fuel for shipping.
In the event of Japanese refiners opting solely to blend export-grade gasoil with high sulfur fuel oil, they could be burdened with surplus HSFO, amounting to around 4.80 million kl, or 30.19 million barrels, annually, according to the PAJ research.
If there is ready acceptance of open-loop scrubbers worldwide, ships installed with the scrubbers can avoid works to turn their scrubbers to closed-looped scrubbers, Nogami said.
“This could curb increasing demand for low sulfur fuel oil or marine gasoil, in the event of facing needs for the repair works,” he said.
Nogami claimed Singapore’s position as a bunker hub may decline as it moves to restrict open-loop scrubbers for ships.
However, Singapore will remain the dominant bunkering hub due its infrastructure, strategic location, technology and focus on transparency, among other advantages, other sources said.
Banning wash water discharge from open-loop scrubbers in port waters will only reduce their viability by a small amount and have a limited impact on bunker demand, as consumption of bunker fuel in the port is significantly lower than that at sea, sources said.