Chapter 3.png
  • Sulphur in marine fuels

    On 16 February 2012 the environment committee of the European Parliament will vote on a proposal to limit the sulphur content in fuels used by ships in EU seas. This briefing gives an overview of the key issues at stake.



    In July 2011 the European Commission published a proposal to revise Directive 1999/32/EC (the “sulphur in fuels directive”) that regulates the maximum level of sulphur permitted for fuels used in the shipping sector. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has already set standards for this and this EU directive is set to turn these international limits into EU law and probably extend the requirements in some areas.

    The heavy fuel oil used in international shipping contains on 2700 times more sulphur that road fuel.  Sulphur contained in fuel causes emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and also contributes to the formation of secondary particulate matter (PM) that is particularly harmful both to humans and the environment. These emissions have a major health impact, with shipping air pollution estimated to cause around 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe. SO2 emissions also cause environmental problems such as acid rain affecting soil and water and damage to biodiversity.

    1. The 0.1% sulphur limit from 2015:

    The IMO requires the application of low-sulphur fuel (0.1% sulphur content) to only the North Sea, English Channel and the Baltic as of 2015. The question is whether Europe should simply copy and paste the IMO standards or if EU requirements for 0.1% sulphur fuel should go beyond what has been required internationally. Parliament is discussing various ways of extending this to the rest of Europe by including additional sea areas and also applying the requirements to passenger ships such as ferries and cruise liners.

    T&E thinks that the EU should at least adopt a similar requirement to what the US and Canada have already introduced – i.e. a 0.1% sulphur limit for all coastlines.

    2. The 0.5% sulphur limit from 2020:

    This limit will apply worldwide as of 2020, but there have been calls for an alternative deadline of 2025.

    T&E thinks that it should enter into force in 2020 at the latest. The alternative deadline would undermine the legal certainty of this important issue.

    3. Fuel availability

    There is a debate on fuel availability and how the directive should be enforced in the case where ships have not been able to buy low sulphur fuel because it was not available when they ‘bunkered’ (filled up).

    T&E thinks that the law must require EU Member States to ensure low sulphur fuel is available. A similar provision was used when unleaded fuel was introduced for cars in Europe.

    4. Enforcement

    There are competing proposals on the enforcement provisions of this directive – some strengthening them and some weakening them.

    T&E thinks that enforcement should be strengthened significantly. A minimum number of inspections should be required by law and dissuasive fines (€ 25 000) should be set for ships that break the rules. Such fines would bring Europe into line with enforcement measures in the US and Canada.

    What are the next steps?

    The vote in the environment committee of the European Parliament will take place on 31 January, the full parliament vote is scheduled for the week of 21 May 2012.

    The rules also need to be approved by Member States. Civil servants from member states will discuss the issue on 13 February 2012. No date has been set so far for minister-level discussions.

    Background: Why is it necessary to control sulphur emissions from the shipping sector?

    International shipping uses heavy fuel oil (residual fuels) with a very high sulphur content. The marine fuel currently in use is on average 2,700 times dirtier than the fuel used in the road sector where strict limits have applied for many years. Maximum limit values applicable for international shipping are set by International Maritime Organization (IMO) in the Annex VI of the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, the so called MARPOL Convention.

    Due to the poor quality of the cheap bunker fuels used in maritime transport, SO2 shipping emissions are projected to increase and by 2020 exceed SO2 emissions from all land-based sources such as power plants in the EU, which over the past several decades have been reduced dramatically at great cost to industry.

    What is the Commission proposal?

    The purpose of the Commission’s proposal is to transpose the standards agreed internationally at the IMO in 2008 into EU law to ensure their proper and harmonised enforcement by all EU Member States.

    The directive therefore replicates the standards that have been set by the IMO and updates the EU standards for ships at berth and for passenger ships operating on a regular service given their proximity to land and hence their proximity to people and ecosystems.

    For environmental reasons, stricter limit values apply in specific areas designated as sulphur emission control areas (SECAs) that are particularly sensitive to SO2 emissions. For all the limit values, compliance can be achieved by using cleaner low-sulphur fuels (such as gas oils or liquefied natural gas) or alternatively specific after-treatment systems which extract SO2 emissions from the exhaust.

    Being binding on all EU Member States, the sulphur in fuel directive provides a legal basis to ensure compliance and makes EU countries liable to enforce the internationally agreed limit values as enforcement through IMO mechanisms is not strict.

    What have the US and Canada done?

    On March 27 2009 the United States and Canada jointly submitted a proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to designate most areas of their coastal waters for 200 nautical miles (about 370 km) from the shoreline as an emissions control area (ECA) for the control of sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter emissions. The IMO’s sulphur limit for ECAs is currently 1% and will be lowered to 0.1% as of 1 January 2015.  After having been accepted by the IMO, the North American ECA came into force on 1 August 2011.

    The emissions control area extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the coast, and includes waters adjacent to the Pacific coast, the Atlantic/Gulf coast and the main Hawaiian Islands.

    According to calculations by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the North American ECA will save up to 14000 American and Canadian lives every year by 2020 by imposing stricter environmental standards on large ships. The cost is estimated at US$3.2 billion/year in 2020, while the health-related benefits are estimated to be as much as US$110 billion/year in 2020.The use of current high-sulphur residual fuel in ships leads to large emissions of smog-inducing nitrogen oxides, health-damaging fine particles, and sulphur dioxide which causes acid rain.