In the well-loved sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and company provide an apt demonstration that even totally dysfunctional families can muddle through pretty well in the end, and have fun doing it. Could these comedy characters be a possible role model for regulating the shipping family?

Step Change For Regulators

As shipowners struggle with a long recession, escalating fuel costs and tricky credit, it’s easy to see why changing regulations seem like yet another chaotic burden in an already dysfunctional world. And, to be fair, the regulatory framework has made life harder in the last decade. Regulation of emissions, carbon footprint and ballast water have propelled regulators into the heart of shipping economics, leaving many owners struggling with hard choices about how to meet the new rules.

A Real Little Scrubber

Sulphur emissions illustrate how tricky things have become. Ideally regulations have a well-defined timescale and global adoption, but the sulphur regulations have neither. Although the timetable cuts the 3.5% global sulphur cap for marine fuel to 0.5% in 2020, the implementation date could be 2025 if the IMO’s distillate fuel study indicates supplies may not be available. And the global cap is not global either. The “Emission Control Areas” (ECAs) in North America, the Baltic and the North Sea have different rules. From next January ships trading in ECAs face a 0.1% sulphur cap.

Unquantifiable Options

More complexity is added by the options for getting down to 0.1%. One is to use eye-wateringly expensive distillate fuel; another is LNG; and the third is to install a “scrubber”. Since distillate fuel costs about 50% more than MFO, that’s unattractive, but LNG is unlikely to be much cheaper and scrubbers can cost in the region of $2-4m each.

Undecided Or Indecisive?

Luckily, the immediate decision is not too difficult because most ships will not spend long in ECAs. For example, a ship trading between Rotterdam and New York sails about 3,400 miles on the high seas, and around 20% of the distance is in ECAs. However, with more diverse trading the average over the year should be less, say 10%? From January 2015 a bulker sailing 300 days a year at sea, with 10% in ECAs, would spend an extra $0.2m a year on distillate fuel. Is it worth fitting a scrubber to save $0.2m pa? For bulkers no, but for ferries, offshore units and the like trading full time in ECAs, it might be. But when the global sulphur cap drops to 0.5% in 2020 the annual fuel bill will jump by over $2m, which would pay for a scrubber in a year or two, so that’s when the big step change in scrubber installation will happen. Unless, of course, the IMO defers to 2025.

Fabulous Future, Darling

So there you have it. Fuzzy regulations, but for most the economics are not too tricky. Intra-ECA ships should scrub up soon, global traders “wait-and-see”, and Transatlantic traders follow the ‘Ab Fab’ strategy – mix up a distillate cocktail and have a bit of fun! Have a nice day.