LNG: A Step Forward in Reducing Fuel Emissions, or Not

Assessing the environmental impact.

A breakdown of the pros and cons of using LNG as clean fuel for ships.  

In June this year, Petronas conducted its first LNG bunkering operation in Port Klang – a huge leap forward environmentally as it is aimed at supplying cleaner fuel and subsequently reducing pollutants in the air.

Sharan Raj, an infrastructure policy analyst by profession and a passionate environmentalist with Parti Sosialis Malaysia, shares his thoughts on the matter with Maritime Fairtrade. 

The impact of Heavy Fuel Oil

“Looking at the current state of international shipping, 82 percent of bunker fuel is from heavy fuel oil (HFO) and 18 percent is from diesel and marine oil. Large crude carriers and containers use HFO because it is a byproduct of the distillation process and is therefore the cheapest form of oil available, but it also happens to be the dirtiest form of oil. Huge carriers require huge amounts of energy to move and on that basis, HFO is often used”, said Sharan.

Elaborating on HFO, he described it as a viscous substance that stays afloat and sticks on shorelines and birds’ feathers, to name a few harmful effects. The substance also does not disintegrate easily, making it a huge pollutant. Containing high amounts of sulphur, which produce carbon dioxide and sulphur oxides upon combustion, the sulphur residue which is produced by the ships are, unfortunately, one of the major pollutants in port cities.

The harm is immense, and it is easy to see why new technology is welcome.

Other options 

Operators currently using high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO) have a few options: switch to low sulphur fuel oil (LSFO), continue using HSFO with an exhaust scrubber, or convert to alternative fuels such as LNG.

Efforts at improving air quality, preserving the environment and protecting human health led to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) setting up a new regulation known as IMO 2020, whereby the limit of sulphur from fuel on ships which are operating outside emission control areas is significantly reduced. 

To do this, operators will have to retrofit the machinery on vessels with exhaust gas cleaning systems, also called scrubbers, or switch to alternative fuel sources like LNG.  However, LNG is not a cheap option.

“Liquified natural gas (LNG) leaves minimal traces of sulphur and nitrogen waste – sometimes a negligible amount – making it a great choice for clean fuel. The only drawback is the upfront cost of it. Diesel and HFO can be stored in liquid form at room temperature. Meanwhile, natural gas has to be supercooled (at least -83 °C) and requires special pipelines as well as storage tanks to keep it in liquid form,” explained Sharan.

Environmental impact of LNG

When there are methods employed, there are results expected, and the outcome of using LNG has been a dubious one, environmentally speaking.

According to Sharan, “If we look at sulphur and nitrogen pollution, then there is a very significant amount of reduction when using LNG compared to a HFO carrier. When you look at the entire lifecycle of LNG production, you have to remember that LNG is methane gas – a greenhouse gas on its own. It escapes a lot during upstream exploration of natural gas. 

“Also taking into account the carbon emission from gas turbines used on LNG carriers, the amount of pollutants produced by both are almost identical. Factoring that in, the effect on climate change is almost non-existent.”

It is not all bad, however. The IMO 2020 ruling contributed to a number of countries adopting LNG technology, with major port cities expected to see significant benefits from this. Although it may not be the solution for climate change, it is an immediate solution for localized air pollution in port cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Amsterdam.

The lesser of two evils

Weighing the pros and cons of LNG technology, there are some things that need to be considered when adopting this clean fuel technology. From operation and production costs to the long-term impact, is it really the best way forward?

“Environmentally, it isn’t sustainable right now. First, we need to reduce the amount of escaped methane. If upstream exploration regulations were tightened significantly – venting, flaring, transportation of gas using more efficient carriers like gas pipelines instead of crude carriers – and the production lifecycle cost drops, the amount of waste saved compared to using HFO would be impactful,” said Sharan

To add on, he pointed out that the development of other types of new fuels are not fully matured yet, putting batteries on ships is expensive, and it then becomes a matter of which one is the lesser of two evils. 

“LNG infrastructure is developed, making it better than the other technologies. Globally, there are many ports that already carry LNG gas for refueling, with ship-to-ship fuel transfer by gas corporations in the plans. Comparing this to HFO, it is definitely the lesser of two evils, the most viable, and the best choice we have,” shared the earnest environmentalist.

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