COLUMN | There’s trouble in the tank [Grey Power]

Ship-to-ship bunkering operations (Photo: Gasum)

What a terrible fuss there would be if your local filling station that it would be a good idea to make its diesel or petrol (or gasoline for our American readers) go a little farther by watering it down a little. If it was discovered that aviation fuel could no longer be trusted because of impurities that had been permitted to enter the supply chain, the scandal would be of global proportions, with demands for high-placed heads to roll.

But year after year, scandal after scandal surfaces in the industry that supplies marine bunkers and people just seem to shrug it off, as if it was just a people that had no solution, like unseasonable weather. Whether it is chemical impurities that somebody in a fuel depot wanted to get rid of, some frightful additives that strip out the insides of an engine, or just downright criminal fraud in the quantity supplied, it has become almost a permanent feature and a marine hazard, like uncharted rocks.

Coming close astern of yet another problem involving a large consignment of contaminated fuel stemmed out of Texas, the Fuel Trust, which rather bravely tries to keep a handle on what is going in the foggy world of marine bunkers, has revealed more disquieting statistics. It noted that in one single month, eleven ships had reported a loss of propulsion allegedly because of fuel problems. This probably should not have been a surprise, as some 39 per cent of all the fuel used in a global survey of 2021 to 2022 revealed some discrepancies.

Also, while there has been understandable concern expressed about contamination through fines or various chemicals, it seems that water content is a major issue, with measurement revealing amounts of water in bunkers varying between 0.1 and 0.25 per cent.

“Like burglary or shoplifting, it never goes away for long.”

This is, the trust points out, dangerous and fraudulent, amounting to a sort of short changing that would destroy the reputation of any shore-side retailer. Big money is involved too, with an average loss to the buyer of the fuel of a not inconsiderable US$14,910 per delivery from dodgy or incompetent suppliers.

It is the perennial nature of this that is most disturbing, a modern problem that really began with the oil companies deciding that selling the bottom of their barrels was best left to others. Very old folk will tell you that there were suppliers of coal bunkers that some blighters bulked up with stones, but you would hope that in our 21st century technological age, and the values of both ships and their fuels, we might have moved on a bit. There may be the occasional prosecution in ports where they value their reputations and suppliers losing their licences to trade, but like burglary or shoplifting, it never goes away for long.

Various reasons, some more spurious than others, are offered to explain why this problem is so intractable. Ships are here today and gone tomorrow and the nature of the stuff supplied might not be revealed until the victim is far away. There again, the charterers who may be buying the fuel will be enthused more by the price than the quality and always looking for a cheap deal in a fast-moving, volatile, and competitive market. Thus, in dealing with this cheapest of all fuels, it may well be supplied by people whose margins are arguably inadequate.

“Some of these low-carbon fuels have quite scary characteristics and the supply of all surely deserve a more rigorous approach by everyone.”

The purchasers don’t do themselves any favours, either, as the charterers all too often fail to avail themselves of adequate fuel testing (the cost of which they will try and foist off to the owner), with the result that the testing is non-existing or inadequate. It is a sad irony that there are excellent testing companies available, more than capable of detecting any irregularities and even tracing the fuel back to its ultimate source, if only people could be persuaded to use them.

It shouldn’t be a wild west out there in the marine bunker world, especially as it so clearly devolves into real risks for ships and those aboard them. When “fuel problems” have struck, with the ship on a lee shore and the salvage tug too far away, it is a bit late to wish that the quality regime for fuel supply was rather more rigorous.

We also should be increasingly apprehensive, should the cavalier attitude to fuel quality in the marine world find itself transferred to the supply of the various low-carbon alternatives now facing the industry. Some of these, such as ammonia, have quite scary characteristics and the supply of all surely deserve a more rigorous approach by everyone. You wouldn’t want to be watering down this.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.