The Sulfur Situation

22 December 2009 By Louisa Beckett

July 1, 2010 marks the next step in the progressive reduction in sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions permissible from ships flagged by a state that has ratified the International Maritime Organization (IMO) MARPOL Annex VI regulations, adopted in 2008. That is when the cap on sulfur content in marine gas oil in the Sulfur Emission Control Areas (SECAs) such as the Baltic Sea, the North Sea/English Channel and Coastal California will go down from 1.5 percent to 1.0 percent by mass. Of course, many regions around the world already have met or exceeded these regulations. European Union waters adopted the 1.0 percent sulfur cap two years ago.

“Some regions like the Baltic have stringent regulations for operation with regards to emissions control. If you do not meet them, you are not allowed to operate there,” says veteran superyacht captain Herb Magney. “Now who comes out and checks is tough one – but if someone reports you, like a whistle-blowing ex-crewmember, the penalty for a licensed operator could be severe.”

The U.S. marine diesel market is coming up on another milestone in June 2010, when the limit for the sulfur content of off-road diesel fuel will drop to 15 ppm. That means only Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD), which has just 15 ppm sulfur content, will be available. (By contrast, the Low Sulfur marine diesel fuel currently sold in the U.S. has a sulfur content of 500 ppm – and a dozen years ago, the sulfur content of regular marine diesel was as high as 5,000 ppm.)

When Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) was first introduced to the marine market, the concern was that the fuel’s lower lubricity levels might be incompatible with or even cause damage to older boat engines. Many experts feel that problem has been solved by the use of additives that restore the fuel’s lubricity.

Marianne Vanstone of Global Yacht Fuel in Fort Lauderdale says, “There’s no reason any engine can’t use it. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Instead, the main problem megayacht captains are finding with ULSD today is its lack of availability. “There are many areas in the world, where [captains] are simply not going to be able to get it,” Vanstone said. She reports that it’s difficult to find in parts of the Caribbean outside of major ports like St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Maarten. In her opinion, the sulfur content in marine diesel being pumped in The Bahamas is currently on the high side as well.

That’s where bunkering services come in, helping captains source the right grade of fuel, where – and when – they need it.

“We’re pumping a load of Ultra Low Sulfur Fuel right now,” said Lucille Frye of Super Yacht Services in St. Maarten. “It is available – just ask your agent.”

Bunkering services and yacht agents also can provide an invaluable service in making sure you actually get what you’re paying for.

“There are a lot of hacks out there who will sell commingled loads for cheap and sell you heating oil or light bunker oil,” Capt. Herb said. “A good educated and diligent captain or engineer will have the knowledge and can have the equipment to tell the difference.” Still, he recommends, “Always get a certified sample of your load. If someone lies about it…when you get your results back, you can confront the guys who sold you the trash.”