A recent report released by Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) concludes that the operation of open loop scrubbers with high sulphur fuel oil is not only safe, it is also preferable to burning low sulphur fuel alone.

This announcement accompanies the news that more than 20 ports worldwide have indicated that they will not oppose the use of open loop scrubbers.

Ostensibly In the name of scientific veracity, some have poked at the Japan report, suggesting that it does not account for every eventuality of scrubber use.

The operation of open loop scrubbers with high sulphur fuel oil is not only safe, it is also preferable to burning low sulphur fuel alone

But, as the MLIT makes clear in their response, “We believe this study provides a sufficiently reliable outcome based on best efforts within limited time and budget utilizing available information and technologies as of today.”

The maritime industry is working hard to comply with IMO 2020

They make an important point. Widespread use of scrubbers is not yet a reality - nobody knows for certain what the outcome will be.

But, those who support a fair and viable solution that respects shipowners and the environment are making the best decisions they can with the information that is currently available.

The maritime industry is working hard to comply with IMO 2020. Owners, especially, are facing turbulent and unpredictable financial waters. Regardless of the solution they implement, the cost ramifications are significant.

Yet, key stakeholders in the maritime sector are sending potentially damaging signals on how shipowners should comply with the new fuel emissions regulations. In the murky waters of this debate, scrubbers are a hot topic.

The use open loop scrubbers has become controversial

Open loop scrubbers, especially, continue to receive focused attention. Like their closed loop and hybrid counterparts, these exhaust gas cleaning systems remove the greater part of sulphur oxides (SOx) from the exhaust gases of ships’ engines and boilers.

They also remove up to 94% of the particulate matter (PM) and up to 60% of the black carbon (BC) – particularly important due to the potential damage it can cause in polar regions.

Open loop scrubbers have become controversial as they require the discharge of wastewater back into the ocean. This washwater is left over from the scrubbing process, which uses the natural alkalinity of saltwater to clean the SOx from the ship’s exhaust gases and neutralise the resultant sulphuric acid.

Red-versus-Blue-ship.jpeg Open loop scrubbers, especially, continue to receive focused attention.

Assertions are being made without scientific corroboration

Opponents of this system claim that the discharge of the scrubbing solution back into the ocean is harmful to marine ecosystems and coastal communities. But these assertions are made without scientific corroboration.

They rely instead on misdirected attempts to discredit the established science that supports scrubbing, or they do away with science altogether.

Concerns about the viability of open loop scrubbers as a compliance solution to the requirements of IMO 2020 were ignited last November when the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) announced that it would ban open loop scrubbing in its waters from 1 January 2020.

This declaration was followed by similar bans from Fujairah and China, fuelling wild speculation that numerous ports around the world would follow suit.

Though this has not happened, actions by these authorities border on reckless. As yet, none of these countries has published the studies that presumably support their respective decisions.

Singapore recently went even further by classifying residues from scrubber operation as "toxic industrial waste (TIW)" under Singapore's Environmental Public Health Regulations.

This will extend operational pressure to vessels operating with closed loop scrubbers too. In terms of the new laws, the waste solution held on board may only be handled by a licenced collector.

Critics of open loop scrubbers seem to forget that this technology was specifically accepted by the IMO

Port authorities are not required to justify their decisions to those who travel through them. But, in the absence of communication, explanation or scientific validation, they are placing themselves in a contradictory position.

On the one hand, these regions claim to be supporting the will of the IMO and the spirit of Marpol Annex VI. Yet, on the other hand, the ban of open loop scrubbers denies the scientific analysis that helped the IMO arrive at their 2020 regulations in the first place.

Critics of open loop scrubbers seem to forget that this technology was specifically accepted by the IMO as a legitimate means of complying with the new sulphur regulations.

That decision did not take place in a vacuum. It was based on scientific enquiry which confirmed that the buffering capacity of the world’s oceans could absorb the sulphates in open loop discharge without causing harm.

Critics of open loop scrubbers seem to forget that this technology was specifically accepted by the IMO as a legitimate means of complying with the new sulphur regulations.

So, by banning open loop scrubbers such ports are playing enforcer while openly challenging the laws they choose to enforce.

Of course, there may be localised factors that motivate regional rules. But, Singapore and Fujairah, for example, have not released any public documentation or impact assessments to this effect.

Without this information, we can only assume they are taking a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach.

This is not constructive. And, when you have as much influence as the Port of Singapore does, it could even be called irresponsible.

In a business climate that is already challenging for smaller and more marginal operators, effectively removing a legitimate compliance option such as open loop scrubbers could be devastating.

The science in this debate falls squarely on the side of scrubbers. That’s because it is currently the only science in the debate.

To suggest that it is not convincing enough without offering any substantiating evidence to the contrary is as cynical as it is damaging to those trying to make a living in this industry.