DATE: December 21, 2020
SNIP: A ship fuel scandal is being uncovered that looks likely to be larger than the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal. It involves some of the biggest names in the global oil and shipping industry, and goes to the very top of the UN shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
As a result, thousands of ships around the world are at risk of catastrophic engine failures, putting the lives of millions of sailors, coastal communities and the ocean environment at risk around the world.
The four month wide-ranging special investigation published in Forbes today involved dozens of leading international organizations working around the world. For the first time, it reveals the scale of the scandal, danger and cover up. It all unraveled with the grounding and large oil spill caused by the Japanese Bulk Carrier, The Wakashio, on the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius this summer. The bizarre response to the incident by what were supposed to be independent international oil spill responders, prompted several of the world’s leading pollution experts to describe this as ‘the strangest oil spill response we have ever seen,’ attracting even further scrutiny.
At the center of the scandal is a new experimental fuel used in large ocean-bound ships. The fuel’s name is called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil or VLSFO, and it turns out to essentially be a made-up fuel. It was such a mix of hazardous chemicals that the oil has been referred to as a super-pollutant ‘Frankenstein Fuel’ by leading NGOs.
The mega-ships impacted by this experimental fuel carry 90% of the world’s trade, including large container ships for household goods, cargo ships for agricultural and industrial produce and supertankers for oil and gas. The ship fuel industry is a $150 billion a year industry that has largely been hidden from the media and international climate discussions.
Three out of every four gifts delivered this Christmas would have been transported at some stage by ships using this new form of contaminated fuel. It was hastily introduced on 1 January 2020 by the UN Shipping Agency, the IMO, without proper testing, and now presents a danger to ship safety and the environment. To make matters worse, this fuel is also increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Dozens of industry reports and meetings at the time of the introduction of the VLSFO were dominated by the serious flaws with VLSFO fuel. This had all sorts of technical, legal and commercial implications. Investigations found that this fuel was causing catastrophic ship failures around the world. These failures were caused by serious engine malfunctions in the middle of the ocean, higher risks of engine fire, critical machinery becoming clogged and breaking down, and a phenomenon that could lead to ‘runaway ship engines.’
The issue is so widespread that at any moment, at least 3600 vessels could be travelling with contaminated batches of this unstable fuel, though many in the industry have said this is likely to be a gross underestimate, and the true scale of the issue is much larger. Even more egregious, is that these fuels have been found to cause more greenhouse gas emissions, not less.
VLSFO also required new mixes of lubricating oil into the engine. Getting the combination wrong would create an even greater catastrophic risk. This meant that ship engineers were left having to conduct real-time chemistry experiments with the unstable VLSFO fuel and had to attempt to find a matching chemical mix in almost real time. Often, they had little guidance on how to do this, in a way that worked with the particular engine their ship was powered by. It also meant that regulators had no idea what chemical mix was now being put into ship engines, and whether or not they were complying with national and international emission and pollution standards.
The UN’s International Maritime Organization and the world’s shipping industry were aware of the risks, and took no action. They had rushed forward with the oil without the appropriate safety testing of the fuel. Until now, there has not been any comprehensive Government study of the risks posed by VLSFO on global shipping, human health and the environment. Certainly none that is truly independent of industry interests.
Today, hundreds of thousands of sailors remain stranded on ships around the world with unsafe fuel on board. This poses serious risks to the coastline of countries close to major shipping lanes, as well as the residents who are innocent bystanders and are at risk of a major oil spill due to the introduction of this toxic fuel in the world’s ships.