02 December 2010

LNG - The Fuel for the Future?

Those of you who follow the ferry news in the Nordic Countries are probably aware that Viking Line have made a memorandum of agreement with the STX shipyard in Turku to build a 60 000 GT LNG-powered cruiseferry that - should the agreement be made - will replace the company's Isabella on the Turku-Stockholm service in 2013. Viking Line however are not the only ferry company planning for a natural gas -based future: the Norwegian company Fjord Line (company website) are currently building two large ferries for their Norway-Denmark services, to be delivered in 2012.

The usage of LNG however is not without problems at the moment. A major hurdle in the path of Viking Line's plan is the lack of fuel infrastructure in the company's traffic area. To supply fuel for the new ship, an entirely new LNG terminal has to be built. There are plans for building such in either Turku or the neighbouring city Naantali but it's still a major investment. In Norway the problem is apparently less severe, as a number of small coastal ferries are already LNG-powered and one presumes the new Fjord Line ships are capable of using the same facilities.

Why then the sudden desire for companies to build LNG-powered ships? The ansver lies in new EU air pollution regulations that are due to come into effect in Northern Europe 2015. These rules specify that ships must use fuel with a 0,1% sulphur content instead of the current 1%. In effect this will double the fuel expenses of traditional diesel-engined ferries and forces shipping companies to look into alternative sources of fuel. There is however the problem that Viking Line has: in most places the supply infrastructure does not exist and according to a report in Cruise Business Online, it will take until 2020 for the infrastructure to be properly built. Potentially this can be a serious threat to the ferry operators in Northern Europe, as many routes will simply not be viable under the new conditions.

That said, why are the shipping companies awakening to this fact now? The decision on the new pollution regulations was made already in 2008. It would have probably been possibly to fit ships completed this year such as Stena Line's new Stena Hollandica and Stena Britannica or P&O's upcoming Spirit of Britain and Spirit of France with LNG-compatible engines. Yet this wasn't done. Instead the companies spent two years procrastinating and now complain that they won't have time to implement the changes by 2015.

I'm not arguing this wouldn't be a major problem as refitting all existing tonnage in five years (or even seven years) simply isn't viable and the raised fuel expenses are likely to result in route closures. That in turn will cause an increase in road traffic, which will in turn negate any benifit of the less-polluting ship fuel. But shouldn't you have started doing something about it a bit earlier?

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