The Trident Alliance, the industry group set up to lobby for a level playing field in enforcement of marine sulfur limits, is wary of declaring its task is completed just yet.
"It's early days in terms of what enforcement is," Roger Strevens, the organisation's chair as well as vice president for sustainability at Wallenius Wilhelmsen, said in an interview with Ship & Bunker last week.
"That information is only going to trickle out in bits and pieces."
The Trident Alliance is a coalition of ship owners and operators formed in 2014 to help ensure "robust and transparent" enforcement of sulfur regulations for shipping.
In the years leading up to 2020 there was concern that non-compliance with the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) rules on sulfur could be widespread, meaning that those companies complying properly would be at a financial disadvantage to their competitors.
Demand Data May Highlight Non-Compliance
You already hear rumours from people you'd imagine are fairly well-versed on these things suggesting that maybe there's a bit of cause for concern.
Strevens suggested the first evidence of levels of non-compliance with the new 0.50% sulfur limit would come as organisations like Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority and the Port of Rotterdam start to publish bunker demand data for 2020.
"When we get a bit further into the year, we'll be able to compare the amount of high sulfur fuel oil that has been purchased against the known installed base of scrubbers," he said.
"That will be a very interesting comparison to make.
"You already hear rumours from people you'd imagine are fairly well-versed on these things suggesting that maybe there's a bit of cause for concern.
"But the Trident Alliance is not going to take any public position on this until the data is in," he added.
Bunker market forecasts so far have generally assumed a relatively high level of compliance at 90% or more of demand, with largely only smaller ships risking flouting the rules.
"In an academic context an overall grade of 90% would be regarded as excellent -- however, on sulfur compliance it is not good at all," Strevens said.
"It could mean that one out of nine of your competitors is grossly non-compliant."
But Strevens was keen to distinguish between marginal cases of non-compliance with fuels just above the 0.50% sulfur limit and more clear-cut cases, expressing the hope that port authorities would make it clear what type of case they were talking about when reporting breaches of the rules.
"I very much hope that they draw the distinction between vessels that are one or two hundredths of a percent out of compliance, where there's no economic benefit and negligible environmental difference, and the vessels that are on 3.5% sulfur fuel," he said.
Some in the industry have raised the concern that in cases where fuel supplied was subsequently tested as having sulfur levels between 0.50% and 0.53%, which could be deemed commercially acceptable under ISO 8217 specifications but still non-compliant by the IMO's measure, port authorities may take a strict line.
Strevens suggested there may have been some shipping companies still burning the last of their fuel oil after the January 1 IMO deadline but looking to finish doing so before March 1, when the ban on the carriage of fuel above 0.50% sulfur comes into effect.
"It would be very helpful to know if operators have been running down HSFO into this year," he said.
"I suspect there's a non-zero prospect that that has happened, unfortunately."
But he questioned how widespread enforcement of the carriage ban would be.
"The carriage ban is a very effective piece of legislation, provided it is used," he said.
"Unfortunately, it remains very difficult to understand what is the approach of many port authorities around the world to enforcement."
Beware of the PSC
On the principle that prevention is better than a cure, deterrence is better than detention. If you put up a sign in your backyard saying a fearsome hound lives here, you might think twice about trespassing -- it's the same thing, you need to let people know that there are very clear consequences.
In the cases of countries which have not yet brought the IMO's Marpol Annex VI regulations into national law, he said "it may be that they can do nothing with a vessel in their jurisdiction that's out of compliance."
"Most authorities around the world have not publicised, as distinct from published, what the consequences for non-compliance would be in their jurisdiction, and more should to deter non-compliance," he said.
"On the principle that prevention is better than a cure, deterrence is better than detention.
"If you put up a sign in your backyard saying a fearsome hound lives here, you might think twice about trespassing -- it's the same thing, you need to let people know that there are very clear consequences."
While the IMO has now moved on to discussing greenhouse gas emissions and setting rules to limit them, the Trident Alliance is unlikely to start campaigning on enforcement of those rules any time soon, Strevens said.
"The Trident Alliance is unashamedly focused on one thing only -- that's full, effective enforcement of sulfur regulation," he said.
"One of the key reasons that it is focused on that alone is that there's a natural alignment in the membership.
"You don't join the Trident Alliance if you don't think that issue is important.
"Once you take on other issues you lose that natural alignment," he added.
"You may have a company saying, we agree with you on sulfur, but we don't agree with that approach to greenhouse gas."