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When demand for container shipping renews, vessels returning to China to load exports could find themselves on wrong side of a new emissions law.

At the weekend, the country banned the use of open-loop scrubbers with the ministry of transportation’s 2020 Global Fuel Oil Sulphur Limitation Order Implementation Plan (2020 plan).

It prohibits the use of fuel oil with a sulphur content exceeding 0.5% within 12 miles of China, vessels entering its waters carrying self-use fuel oil with a sulphur content exceeding 0.5%, but makes an exception for vessels fitted with “compliant” scrubbers.

According to law firm Holland & Knight, “The 2020 plan creates potential new compliance issues for vessels using exhaust gas cleaning systems (EGCSs) operating in waters within 12 miles of the Chinese coast and discharging scrubber wash water, which effectively amounts to a prohibition of the use of scrubbers in Chinese waters unless the system can retain wash water for discharge outside Chinese waters, or disposal by other means.

“This will primarily affect vessels with open-loop scrubber systems, which actively discharge wash water subject to MARPOL Annex VI limits on pH and certain compounds and turbidity, and may also affect closed-loop and hybrid EGCSs, which also produce certain discharges.

“The interplay of these various requirements creates a number of issues for vessels using high-sulphur fuel with MARPOL-compliant scrubbers planning to call at Chinese ports,” the law firm’s maritime team wrote in a client advisory today.

Adding further uncertainty is that Chinese authorities are largely preoccupied with the coronavirus outbreak, and with the 2020 plan 1 March implementation date having passed, Holland & Knight said it remained unclear how authorities intended to enforce compliance.

“The current expectation is that vessels utilising MARPOL-compliant scrubbers can comply with the guidelines by deactivating their scrubbers in Chinese coastal waters and switching from higher-sulphur fuel oil to low-sulphur fuel oil,” it said.

The reality of vessels being able to do this, in respect to cleaning fuel tanks and so on, may make this impractical.

Additionally, what are vessels using open-loop scrubbers required to do with non-compliant fuel oil carried onboard for use when the scrubbers are in operation outside Chinese coastal waters?

The law firm said: “It appears that vessels using any type of scrubbers will, at a minimum, be required to submit to port state control a letter committing not to use the 3.5% fuel while in Chinese waters, and seek permission to keep the non-compliant fuel on board.

“The plan, however, offers no specific guidance as to acceptable procedure on this point, and it remains unclear what measures a vessel operator using scrubbers should take if authorisation to carry non-compliant fuel cannot be obtained.

“It would cause a major disruption to the operation of vessels using scrubbers if they were required to offload the higher-sulphur fuel they are permitted to use for their open-sea transit.”

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