April 21, 2024
Bunker Fuel

The Environmental Hazards Of Bunker Fuel

The shipping industry relies heavily on “bunker fuel” to power cargo vessels and tankers across the world’s oceans. However, this cheap and dirty fuel poses serious risks to both human and environmental health. In this article, we examine the main issues with bunker fuel and argue for stronger regulations to curb its negative impacts.

What is Bunker Fuel?

Bunker fuel, also known as heavy fuel oil (HFO), is a type of fuel oil used in ships and large marine engines. It is a thick, sticky liquid composed of residues left over from the distillation process of crude oil in oil refineries. Bunker fuel has a heavy consistency and requires heating before use. It contains high amounts of sulfur, metals, and other impurities.

Due to its composition and properties, Bunker Fuel is very cheap for ship operators, costing around half as much as other marine fuels like marine gas oil and marine diesel oil. This cost savings is a major reason why it remains the preferred fuel for ocean-going vessels. However, bunker fuel comes with significant environmental tradeoffs.

Health and Environmental Impacts

The combustion of bunker fuel releases high levels of sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter known as black carbon. When emitted from ship smokestacks, these pollutants can have wide-ranging negative health and environmental effects:

– Sulfur oxides are highly acidic and contribute to acid rain. They also cause respiratory illnesses in humans. SOx emissions from international shipping account for over 13% of total global SOx emissions.

– Nitrogen oxides are greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. NOx emissions also negatively impact ecosystems through acidification and eutrophication.

– Black carbon particles in ship exhaust act as air pollutants and climate-warming agents when deposited on snow and ice. They are linked to increased risk of cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases.

– When spilled during accidents or operations, bunker fuel’s tar-like sludge can severely damage coastal and marine ecosystems. Spills are difficult to clean up due to bunker fuel’s persistence in the environment.

– Ash and solid particles left after combustion contain heavy metals like vanadium and nickel that accumulate in fish and marine life when deposited in waterways. This can negatively impact food safety and quality.

Impacts on Crew Health

The poor quality of bunker fuel also negatively affects the health and wellbeing of ships’ crews who must handle and burn it. Common issues include:

– Exposure to the fuel’s bitter smoke, soot, ash, and toxic fumes during normal fuel handling and maintenance operations. This increases risks of lung diseases.

– Skin irritations and dermatitis from contact with the sticky fuel and its acidic residues. Difficult fuel transfers also increases risk of spills on crew.

– Psychological stress and fatigue from noisy, noxious engines frequently breaking down due to impurities in bunker fuel and requiring repair at sea.

Regulating Bunker Fuel Quality

While the impacts of bunker fuel are well-documented, international standards on its quality remained weak for many years. This was due to disagreements between ship operators wanting the cheapest possible fuel and coastal nations concerned about pollution.

However, in 2020 the International Maritime Organization introduced the new IMO2020 global sulfur cap which limits the sulfur content of marine fuels to 0.50% mass/mass, down from the previous 3.5% limit. Ship operators now have to either use lower sulfur distillate fuels or install exhaust scrubbers to purify high-sulfur bunker fuel.

In addition, some nations and states have set more stringent sub-regional limits on SOx and other pollutants in coastal emission control areas. The European Union’s SECA zones, for example, mandate a 0.10% sulfur limit. Such policies aim to protect human health and sensitive coastal/port areas from ship pollution.

While IMO2020 marked progress, further action is still needed. Switching entirely to low-sulfur alternatives like LNG would eliminate many of bunker fuel’s hazards. Tighter standards on toxic metals and regulation of spilled fuel are also important to address impacts on ecosystems and crew.

Bunker fuel poses significant threats to both environmental and human wellbeing that require urgent attention. While industry cost concerns are valid, externalized health and environmental costs of bunker fuel use may outweigh any short-term savings. Stronger global cooperation and regulation are needed to curb pollution from bunker fuel and move shipping to cleaner alternative energies. The health of our ocean, climate, and people depend on it.

*Note:
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it