Is the New Clean Fuel Regulation Plan by Cruise Lines the Greenest Option?


Cruise Lines are working overtime to meet the new IMO 2020 sulphur regulations but in their rush, the path they have taken is not the greenest one and amounts to life support for one of the world’s dirtiest fuels, reports Taylor Dolven and Alex Harris for the Miami Herald.

What is it?

The new rule is designed to save lives. The heavy fuel oil that ships use — the cheap and dirty residue leftover at the bottom of a barrel of crude oil after all the gas products are made — is high in sulfur. Sulfur in exhaust from cargo and cruise ships is linked to 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease and 14 million childhood asthma cases annually.

A decade ago, the United Nations International Maritime Organization decided to address air quality by capping sulfur emissions in the open sea at 0.5 percent by 2020, down from 3.5 percent.

The Simplest Ways for Shippers

The simplest way for ships to comply with the new rule is to switch to pricey low-sulfur fuel. Instead, a Miami Herald review of the largest cruise companies, all based in South Florida, reveals the industry is overwhelmingly sticking with heavy fuel oil to power its ships by using “scrubbers,” or exhaust gas cleaning systems, to reduce sulfur output. Scrubbers clean the sulfur out of the heavy fuel exhaust at a lower cost than using the more expensive low-sulfur fuels.

Engine room view of the Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Symphony Of The Seas ship. Royal Caribbean as all the cruise lines are getting ready to comply with a new sulfur cap on emissions that starts in 2020. on Saturday, January 26, 2019.

Opting For Scrubbers?

In opting for scrubbers, cruise lines are swimming against the current. The majority of the world’s 50,000-vessel shipping fleet is in the process of switching to the lighter, cleaner fuel, according to market analysts. But most of the world’s 300-plus cruise ships — less than one percent of the global commercial fleet — are committing to scrubbers.

The cruise lines call the scrubber a technological innovation — and it’s not a cheap one. Depending on the type and size — ranging from one to 10 meters in diameter — scrubbers can cost around $5 million each, plus the cost of taking the ship out of circulation to install the device. Ships have multiple engines and therefore require several scrubbers. But those costs are outweighed by the price difference: heavy fuel is more than 30 percent cheaper than low-sulfur fuel.

What do the environmentalists say?

Environmentalists call the scrubber a waste of money that maintains the status quo. Using heavy fuel with scrubbers comes with environmental risks — like heavy fuel spillage, dirty scrubber waste, and other air toxins — that have led some countries to ban their use in coastal waters.

“If you invest in a scrubber you’re trying to prolong the use of heavy fuel oil as long as possible,” said Sönke Diesener, transport policy officer for the Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union in Germany. “The huge investment should go to zero emission technologies.”

Matter of Cost

The drop to 0.5 percent sulfur for international waters is the steepest cut in IMO’s history. (The organization leaves enforcement up to the countries where ships are registered.) Individual countries cap maritime sulfur emissions off their coasts in zones dubbed “emission control areas.”

Currently, ships are able to burn heavy fuel oil, which has an average sulfur content of around 2.5 percent, freely in international waters. Facing the 2020 deadline, the world’s fleet has three options for compliance: switch to low-sulfur fuel, continue to use heavy fuel oil and install scrubbers, or switch to liquified natural gas.

At the time the rule was conceived, some industry analysts assumed the obvious choice for cruise companies would be low-sulfur fuel. Headlines heralded the rule change as “the end of the era of heavy fuel oil,” and even the director of business development at Port Everglades said in 2009, “the trend is that light, non-sulfur fuel is the way to go.”

“Scrubbers The Way”, Says The Cruise Liners

But the world’s four largest cruise companies — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., and MSC Cruises — are installing scrubbers on the majority of their ships and will still be using heavy fuel after the rule takes effect.

Of the 207 cruise ships belonging to these companies collectively, 68 percent will run on heavy fuel with scrubbers, 31 percent will run on low-sulfur fuel and one percent — just two ships — will run on liquified natural gas by Jan. 1, 2020. Even the newest company to the cruise industry, South Florida-based Virgin Voyages, which touts sustainability as one of its top priorities, is using heavy fuel with scrubbers on its first thee ships. (The first debuts next year.)

Why scrubbers are popular?

  • Currently the global average price for one metric ton of heavy fuel is about $400; low- sulfur fuel goes for about $640 per metric ton, according to
  • And cruise companies use a lot of fuel. The world’s largest cruise company, Carnival, reported consuming 3.3 million metric tons of fuel in 2018.
  • The second largest, Royal Caribbean, expected to consume 1.4 million metric tons of fuel last year, according to financial filings.
  • However, the cost of complying with the new rule won’t affect ticket prices, Carnival confirmed.
  • In coastal emission control areas that require 0.1 percent sulfur, scrubbers can be ramped up to meet the stricter standard. The scrubbers can get the sulfur content in the air to below 0.1 percent.

“We can use cheaper fuel and still be in compliance,” said Andrea DeMarco, vice president of corporate communications at Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. “The payback is definitely worth it.”
Environmentalists say low-sulfur fuel is a better option because it releases fewer heavy metals and other toxic residuals into the air when burned, and it doesn’t produce anything that gets dumped in the ocean, like scrubbers do.

The Scrubbers Advantage

“Scrubbers allow companies to keep using cheap bunker fuels,” said Andres Tremante, a senior instructor at Florida International University’s mechanical and materials engineering department. “It’s like a coin with two faces. Yes, they will help us out today, but it won’t be helping us out tomorrow.”

Cruise lines already carry the low-sulfur fuel on board for places that have banned scrubbers, like California, and to use in their lifeboats. Royal Caribbean’s newest ship carries a four-day supply of low-sulfur fuel on board at all times in case the scrubber systems break. But companies say the lighter fuel is too expensive to use all the time. And with a global fleet that sails to all seven continents and countless remote islands, they say it isn’t available everywhere they need it.

“By opting for installing a tech that achieves the same result they were able to be assured on compliance and not have to think about whether the fuel type would be available in the ports of call where they were going,” said Donnie Brown, vice president of maritime policy at the cruise industry’s lobbying arm, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

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Source: Miami Herald


  1. From this article one can get the impression that low-sulfur fuel will spary perfume to air. The only problem is only the price. The real situation is the most harmful emission from ships are – particles.
    All fuels creates them. According to Professor Ralf Zimmerman – particles are the greater treat to humane heals. The finding in his research was that particles emission from distilled fuel are more harmful comparing to particles from heavy fuel. His advise:
    This can be done.
    Tuvia Berger

    • Thank you for your comment. You have highlighted a valuable point and we put that article on our website. Thank you for reading.


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