Once again Falmouth’s strategic location at the gateway to the Channel is boosting bunker sales as ships comply with the stringent new Emission Control Area (ECA) regulations that came into force on January 1st.

All ships now travelling in a designated ECA must burn fuel with a sulphur content of less than 0.1 per cent. Vessels inward from the west and south entering the ECA will have to burn low sulphur fuel as they pass the longitude of five degrees west which is just east of St Anthony’s lighthouse.

The number of ships calling for bunkers has risen during the past two weeks with a steady flow of ships calling mainly to load marine gas oil loaded from World Fuel bunkering tankers.

World Fuel Services, one of the largest marine fuel suppliers in the world, sells 25.8 million metric tons annually.

For the Falmouth Harbour Commissioners, who have to repay pension deficit liabilities of nearly five million pounds to the Pilots National Pension Fund and Cornwall Council fund, the boost in trade must be most welcome when the organisation is in financial heavy weather. The commissioners hiked their harbour charges in 2013 to combat the pension repayments, which reduces Falmouth’s competitive edge against other European ports

How long will the upturn in trade last in Falmouth? With plunging oil prices, a volatile and a competitive bunker market world wide, the answer is hanging in the air.

Many ship-owners are burning marine gas oil in their ships during the ECA transit, which is low in sulphur, but traditionally more costly than conventional fuel oil.

Gas oil is now at $280 dollars a tonne, half of what is was last year. Therefore, ship owners are not really being hit financially at the moment. But when the oil price eventually rises the situation will change dramatically.

New hybrid fuels are coming onto the market although very few ports worldwide offer these fuels. Hybrid fuels present specific challenges for ship owners and engineers alike regarding lubricity, viscosity, storage, handling and compatibility with other fuel types. The industry is on a steep learning curve.

Whether or not this is just a short-term fluctuation in trade in Falmouth remains to be seen.  Ship owners are tackling a huge number of issues surrounding the new regulations. Some are fitting scrubbers or exhaust-gas cleaning systems to their ships that will allow the ship to burn higher sulphur grade fuel oil whilst lowering emission levels. This represents a significant investment in ship down time, fitting the system and crew training.

Compliance with the new regulations will present ship-owners/operators with problems surrounding navigation routes to and from ECA’s and their fuel procurement strategy.

Due to ship and fuel tank design especially in older tonnage, ship masters will have to decide long before the ship enters the ECA when the switch over between higher and lower sulphur content fuels is made in order to comply with the regulations.

The switch over between different fuel types when entering or leaving an ECA has to be done in accordance with MARPOL regulations with entries made in the ship’s logbook.

Gone are the days when fuel calculations, routes and economic steaming were not as important as they are today.  Nowadays, the major companies will have a team in their head office making detailed calculations on fuel consumption in relation to speed. Itinerary planners will be seeking the best routes that will save money. Fuel represents up to 60% of a shipping company’s costs.

How the new regulations will be policed is a matter that the International Maritime Organisation has yet to decide, and how ship captains must prove compliance.

Worldwide after the introduction of the new regulations last week ship-owners face a global sulphur limit. Ships navigating outside ECA’s will see the limit dropped from 3.5% to 0.5% between 2020 and 2025.