U.S. Updates IMO 2020 Enforcement Policy

A large cargo ship emitting a plume of dark smoke as it sails near the coastline, with a plane visible in the sky above it.

The United States has begun strict enforcement of the IMO 2020 fuel sulfur emissions cap, which could result in harsh penalties for vessel operators caught sidestepping the new regulation.

In new guidance issued by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), vessels calling on U.S. ports will be expected to carry documents showing they burning IMO 2020 compliant fuel with no more than 0.5% sulfur content while in international waters. This regulation went effect on January 1, 2020.

In addition to burning lower-sulfur fuel, ships can comply by filtering emissions using a scrubber in the ship\’s smokestack. A second option is to use an alternative fuel such as liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Regulations will tighten even further on March 1, 2020 when a high-sulfur fuel carriage ban goes into effect. At this time, ships will no longer be able to carry non-compliant fuel in their bunker tanks.

Vessel industry representatives have been skeptical about the ability of regulators in the U.S. and around the world to keep shipowners from cheating by burning non-compliant fuel. Avoiding the new regulations would allow them to purchase fuel at a significantly lower price over those who comply. However, new regulations aim to punish the unscrupulous owners.

The USCG emphasized that it \”will review BDNs [bunker delivery notes] and check logs to determine whether the vessel is complying with the applicable fuel sulfur limit when operating beyond U.S. waters.\”

The agency also warned of potential shortages of heavy fuel oil with a maximum sulfur content of 0.50%. \”As such, the 2020 sulfur caps may result in an unfamiliar grade of fuel that may consist of a mixture of heavy fuel oil and distillate fuel oil,\” it stated in the guidance.

\”Further, there is currently no accepted technical specification for such a fuel oil. This has raised concerns in the shipping industry that fuel quality and availability will vary considerably and, as a result, ships may have problems obtaining and/or burning certain fuel oil.\”

According to George Chalos, an attorney who specializes in maritime environmental compliance, those that choose to cheat will face “serious consequences.” Chalos noted that approximately 80 deficiencies and \”over a dozen\” enforcement actions have taken place in the U.S. for violations of international air pollution regulations.

\”The failure to have compliant fuel on board of a vessel will be viewed as a failure of preparedness, not a failure of accessibility of resources,\” Chalos cautioned. \”In addition, the DOJ perceives that there are vessels breaking the rules each day and strongly believes in its mission to seek out noncompliance and prosecute alleged criminal activity accordingly.\”

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