2018 – A Year of Fuel Quality Concerns?

2018 will live long in the memory for any number of different reasons however, for those involved in the bunkering sector it will probably be remembered for the incidents linked to the Houston fuel contamination cases which affected in excess of 100 vessels during the first half of the year.
The furore created by this one particular episode spilled out across the globe and caused many fuel purchasers to re-evaluate their standpoint in relation to purchasing patterns and fuel testing considerations. The problem fuel cases in Houston garnered a huge degree of attention not simply due to the number of vessels that were affected but also as a result of the nature of the analysis needed to identify underlying issues. It was only by examining the fuels at a forensic level using high end GCMS techniques that we were able to identify a range of unexpected chemicals in the fuels supplied.

Such was the intense focus on this particular case that CIMAC issued an advisor letter which confirmed problematic fuels had been supplied by around 10 different suppliers from a range of barges and that unexpected chemicals were seen in the fuels supplied. It also advised that the industry has, so far, been unable to ascertain directly where in the supply chain the problems occurred but that both CIMAC WG 7 and ISO WG 6 would continue to look at the wider issues of contamination as a matter of course.

Whilst a significant contamination scare may refocus the spotlight on one particular aspect of fuel quality it is important to note that such incidents don’t represent what we expect to see on a day-to-day basis and whilst it is extremely important to understand the implications of such incidents, particularly in relation to how and why these events come about, they certainly shouldn’t detract from the consideration of fuel quality in general terms. Past history tells us that contamination cases provide us with valuable learning experiences but, in the same vein a general examination of “normal” fuel quality concerns offers an in-depth insight into what is going on within the supply chain.

In looking at the data accumulated from routine fuel analysis of commercial bunker samples in accordance with ISO 8217 requirements it is clear to see that 2018 also proved to be a very interesting year in that we saw a substantial shift in quality patterns compared with previous years.

It has been suggested that the clever use of statistics can be used to prove or dis-prove pretty much any argument – certainly the phrase “Lies, damned lies and statistics” as popularised by Mark Twain lends weight to this argument, however in looking at the test data accumulated during 2018 the figures speak for themselves.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the quality of fuel available for purchase improved significantly following the transition from the use of 1.00% m/m Sulphur fuels in ECAs to the us of 0.10% m/m sulphur fuel and whilst this may have been assumed to be a short lived phase the reality is that test figures have continued to show this level being sustained during the last three years.

However, as we move into 2019 a retrospective examination of quality data from 2018 has shown a significant change in the quality of product available for purchase.

Test figures from November 2017 showed that, of all the samples tested as part of the routine analysis program offered by Intertek Lintec, 8.8% showed one or more tested parameters to be in excess of the ISO limits as stipulated for the particular grade of fuel (above ISO limits but within the 95% confidence interval for that particular test) whilst 5.5% of all fuels tested were deemed to be off specification based on a single test result i.e. above the 95% confidence interval.

Fast forward 12 months and the picture is somewhat different.

In looking at the test data from November 2018 we can see that, of all samples tested, 9.1% samples showed one or more tested parameters to be in excess of the ISO limits as stipulated for the particular grade of fuel (above ISO limits but within the 95% confidence interval for that particular test) – not too dissimilar from the 2017 figure. However, 8.9% of all fuels tested were deemed to be off specification based on a single test result i.e. above the 95% confidence interval.

Jan-18 Feb-18 Mar-18 Apr-18 May-18 Jun-18 Jul-18 Aug-18 Sep-18 Oct-18 Nov-18 Average
> ISO Limits 9.8 10.2 8.7 10.6 11 9.5 9.2 9.9 8.4 10 9.1 9.7
Off Spec 4.5 4.9 4.3 5.6 6.8 5.4 6.1 6.2 7.8 5.7 8.9 6.0

A closer examination of the figures across the course of the year does show fluctuations in the variance between the numbers of fuel samples that showed one or more parameters above ISO limits compared to those that are off spec based on a single test result but on average the gap between these two figures is narrowing.

For those of you with an exceptionally good memory you may recall that we highlighted a similar trend when looking at quality figures during 2016 with a general increase in off specs across the year which peaked in July of that year with 9% of all samples tested being deemed off spec based on a single test result.

Q1 2018 Q2 2018 Q3 2018 Q4 2018 2018 Average
> ISO Limits 9.6% 10.4% 9.2% 9.5% 9.7%
Off Spec 4.6% 5.9% 6.4% 7.0% 6.0%

Looking at the data on a quarterly basis we can see a steady rise in the number of off specs from 4.6% in Q1 to 7.0% by Q4 with an average of 6.0% across the whole of the calendar year. A closer examination of the figures in relation to specific test parameters showed a general rise across the board – the usual culprits of Density and Viscosity being prominent as always – however, a significant number of fuels also showed an increase with regard to off spec water and sediment content.

Whilst the number of off spec fuels identified has increased across the year they are still below what was seen prior to the 2015 ECA switch and this being the case would it more pertinent to understand what the change represents rather than focus on the change itself? So why have we seen this change and what – if anything – does it tell us about the march towards 2020? Given the regional variances seen within the data set being examined one thing that it does suggest is that the change could well be directly linked to 2020 in that it shows that preparations are being made for storage and handling of a much larger volume of 0.50% m/m sulphur fuels. The nature of the data seen could suggest that storage tanks are being drained of high sulphur product to make way for low sulphur fuel storage capacity in anticipation of increased demand for 2020 complaint product, which is not an unreasonable assessment given that we are bearing down on the momentous deadline at great speed.