A consultant’s environmental view on scrubber technology

A consultant’s environmental view on scrubber technology
Nikolas Panagakis, CEO, Nick Environmental Services B.V.

It is a universal truth that sulphur emissions cause severe health problems to humans which result in premature deaths; let alone the effects of acid rain on the marine environment and land areas.

I hope most environmental scientists, if not all, will not dispute the following argument: there is no point in using open loop scrubbers as the release of sulphur in the air or the water has the same or similar effect. This must be the supporting argument for the countries which banned washwater effluent discharge of exhaust gas cleaning systems in their national waters.

Very few ships compared to the size of the global fleet have scrubbers installed and the expectation regarding more vessels retrofitting such installations seems ominous. It is quite challenging not only cost wise due to the couple of million required for the installation but also regarding the investigation and preparation for it and its subsequent operation.

Scrubber technology involves a big effort to install and maintain. On a floating factory as all modern ships are, the introduction of an additional parametric system would not only introduce extra work for officers and crew but would further affect the operation of the ship significantly. The operation on heavy fuel oil would be 100 per cent dependent on the performance of the complete scrubber installation and would thus require the scrubber to present in principal minimal to no downtime at all. Only then can the benefits be reaped for such an installation; with continuous operation on heavy bunkers.

But just a few years later, what will we be saying regarding a ship with a scrubber? Does it have a positive impact on the vessel value or all the maintenance needed, the operating costs and the use of space are detrimental to its resale value? What will be the story once the market has found its’ balance?

On the other hand, scrubber technology is long standing but this moment cannot be considered disruptive by any means. It does not affect the current market situation. It did and still does promise a competitive advantage in the short future albeit there are shippers with scrubbers installed admitting they would not perform the installations now.

Usually in our world, legislation leads and industry follows the rules set but being ill-prepared is very true in this case.

Is this the answer or can we solve the problem at its root?

In this era when sustainability on our planet has been adopted as a key issue making world leaders sign agreements, is fitting thousands of scrubbers onboard vessels a good answer? It is very important to speak to refiners regarding this and why they did not take the decision to invest in scrubber technology. Cost goes hand in hand with how we manage resources; on a global scale.

Any idea why didn’t refiners invest in being able to serve the maritime industry?

Through discussions with people in the oil industry, it is clear that most refineries are not dependent on marine fuel. But then again, why didn’t even those who are dependent or have a substantial profit margin in the marine industry invest in it?

Simply because marine fuel is not what drives refinery balance sheets. Up until 2020 that is because simply the impact of the sulphur cap demanding the global fleet to use other fuels than HFO, will ramp up the demand for those fuels to something that seems unpredictable. Just one VLCC burning 104 tons of HFO per day will need to use 104 tons of another fuel oil or distillate or marine gas oil with sulphur content equal or less than 0.5 per cent.

Chaotic shift? Volatility in the oil market?

It is a no-brainer to understand sweet crude prices will rise. It is though rather impossible to make proper predictions of bunker premiums. Analysts have more to say but various delta calculations ranging from 110 $ to 550 $ for the options alternative to HFO, can only give rise to profound scepticism. Is it tens of dollars difference per ton the industry will face or is it hundreds? And even then, one hundred is another reality compared to four hundred per ton. This is the truth much to everyone’s disappointment.

Ultimate goal is and should always be sustainability. Is it correct to say the best use of resources would be to fit all ships with scrubbers so we can continue running on HFO? Or maybe we should choose to tackle the problem at its’ root and help everyone comply? Forecasts of non-compliant ships can only harm our industry. The purpose is not to undermine an industry which has historically been and still remains so fundamental to our world that we cannot imagine it without it. Moreover, control over approximately 700 refinery locations worldwide would prove easier, faster, far more efficient, ultimately better and for sure friendlier to optimisation in terms of space, capacity, maintenance time, spare parts delivery, energy consumption and probably cost. Taking the parameters into account for this equation will impose the smallest possible burden and provide the way forward.

Unfortunately, much to my own disappointment, almost all voices claim it is too late for all that.

And if the marine market is not using anymore heavy fuel or in any case not as much as in the past, what are the refineries going to do with it? Are they going to desulphurise it themselves or sell it on land to someone who has a scrubber?

In the end, why do shippers need to experience all this? It is easy to say shippers will cheat to this or that percentage. In the end somebody behind a computer regardless of him or her being in Rotterdam or Hong Kong does not have to take the risks of the owners and managers.

The problem we are facing is finding common grounds on something that affects everybody.

Back to my introduction: what are we aiming for? Are we willing to solve the problem or not? In the end, this is the reason for imposing legislation.

Unless we find smarter technology to remove sulphur in emissions, the least I can say for scrubbers is that I do not favour them.

“We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.” Aristotle Onassis.

This article was written by Nikolas Panagakis, CEO, Nick Environmental Services B.V.

For more information, please follow this link www.nickenvironmental.services