COLUMN | What’s to fear about future fuels? [Grey Power]

Rendering of a proposed methanol-fuelled oceangoing ship (Photo: Royal IHC)

It doesn’t do to be too fearful about what the future will bring. It is some comfort, a contemporary remarked the other day, that we will have left the scene forever while the younger generations work out how to keep trade going and ships running at a price anyone can afford. Another friend was suggesting that as the rush to “net zero” intensifies, only sails can save the day and he wasn’t writing about mere assistance from the breeze, but the full Monty. He appeared to be serious.

All the arguments about how ships are to be propelled without damaging the planet are confused and contradictory. You might suggest that this is a consequence of governments, guilty of groupthink and panicked by strident activists, stampeding into regulating before the practicalities of what they are demanding are even partially realised.

It is neither climate scientists nor greens who should be calling the shots around these problems but engineers, who are the only people who might just possibly provide some solutions. And yet how often do we ever hear from people who actually understand the limitations of the sort of fuels that people are expected to stuff into their machinery, and perhaps as important, what it might cost?

“Methanol will probably work and looks a favourite alternative, although securing sufficient quantities of the green variety appears a huge challenge.”

But one can hardly expect that the maritime world with its uncertainties to be any further forward than they are ashore, where governments rush to legislate without considering costs or consequences. The same politicians – who pronounce about shipping emissions – cheerfully destroy future development of internal combustion machinery, or the most popular means of home heating, without proper debate and with no sensible strategy for alternatives other than to go “all-electric.” And they do this without considering the mountain that will have to be climbed to pull that off.

One rather hopes that engineers are just working away behind the scenes to fulfil the targets they have been set, and to construct some sort of global infrastructure to keep deep-sea ships running on untried fuels. There are, we are told, a growing number of “dual-fuel” engines already at sea, although very few have in fact been converted to use the stuff. Methanol will probably work and looks a favourite alternative, although securing sufficient quantities of the green variety for large fleets of deep-sea ships appears a huge challenge. Japanese engineers have been testing ammonia for co-firing a four-stroke engine, although nobody appears to be saying too much about safety concerns with this exceedingly toxic fuel.

And what of the cost? There was a report suggesting that bunkering a ship with methanol could cost more than three times the present price, although one had the feeling that this was snatched out of thin air rather than any factual assessment. Who is going to pay for that, even with virtue-seeking shippers advertising their green credentials and demanding the most sustainable carriage for their goods? What will they be prepared to pay, to salve their consciences and protect their balance sheets, which might be somewhat contradictory?

“When contemplating this fearsome future, perhaps a big four-masted barque is not such a daft idea after all.”

If you look into your crystal ball you will probably glimpse a fast-growing level of coercion, with those still using conventional fuels increasingly penalised by taxes, enforced participation in emission trading schemes, and otherwise terrorised into submission. And it takes a first-class lawyer, rather than any engineer, to understand the complexities of the ETS delights being cooked up by European regulators, currently leading the field to impose their will on the world fleet.

It is no surprise that the lawyers are already positioning themselves for much lucrative work as the industry “transitions” (an unfortunate word) to the new regime being formulated. You will need them at your elbow, in the anticipated complexities of CII; slow steaming and fuel saving, as owners and charterers find themselves in endless disputes. Whole new chapters may need to be written in the legal tomes about the latest complexities of the “arrived ship.” You will need to be well-lawyered when the customers decide that you have been charging excessively and invoke competition authorities. Disputes over the quality or calorific value of bunkers supplied will provide a fertile field for legal opinion, as the unfamiliar characteristics of new fuels become apparent.

And any pause in the perceived programme towards Net Zero, even for the most practical reasons, will have any number of legal challenges from its zealous proponents. When contemplating this fearsome future, perhaps a big four-masted barque is not such a daft idea after all.

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.