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‘South African refineries have taken quite a bit of time to produce the low sulphur fuel but we have not run into supply problems – we have adequate imports to cover the needs,’ Sobantu Tilayi, Chief Operations Officer at the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), tells Bunkerspot.

Earlier this month, Bunkerspot reported that SAMSA had issued a marine notice announcing that a study on the impact of open loop scrubbers on South Africa’s marine environment had been put back due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Once the report is delivered, South Africa will be in a position to finalise its position on the use of open loop scrubbers.

The marine notice also provided statistics on the use of open loop scrubbers on vessels arriving at their first port of call in South Africa between May and July this year. In July, for example, 110 vessels out of a total of 643 vessels were equipped with open loop scrubbers, 10 vessels had hybrid systems installed and two were fitted with closed loop scrubbers.

‘Towards the end of last year, we held a workshop on IMO 2020 – at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and at other industry forums there was no foregone conclusion whether the use of scrubbers was the right thing or the wrong thing environmentally speaking,’ said Sobantu Tilayi.

‘At the workshop, we undertook to hold a study [about scrubbers] from a South African perspective, and in the meantime, we said we would allow open loop scrubbers pending the outcome of the scrubber report.’

The study, which is being undertaken in conjunction with the University of the Western Cape, got underway in February but work came to a halt with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial expectations that the price of low sulphur fuel would rocket after the implementation of IMO 2020 were also confounded as oil prices plummeted and bunker demand fell away as the virus spread globally.

SAMSA , in consultation with the Transnet National Port Authority (TNPA) and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), decided to extend the use of open loop scrubbers until the findings of the study are available, now expected to be made known by December.

At that point, ‘there will be a very quick turnaround on a decision,’ said Tilayi. ‘We will have a discussion about the report with the industry, consult government and stakeholders, and then make our decision – it should take about a month.’

He acknowledges that work remains to be done on the provision of port reception facilities for waste from closed and hybrid loop scrubbers.

‘We don’t have adequate reception facilities,’ he says. ‘We weren’t ready, and we knew we didn’t have the time [to provide the facilities], but we are now working on a general plan to handle oil water and now scrubber waste.’

According to Tilayi, vessels calling at South African ports have demonstrated close to 100% compliance with the IMO 2020 regulation by operating on low sulphur fuel or using HSFO in conjunction with scrubbers.
He also says that there have not been any reported fuel quality issues in relation to the use of VLSFOs.

‘We have been very strict with our testing, and those ships that have picked up bunkers have not reported any problems in their onward journey – we are generally very pleased with that outcome.’

While South African refineries have taken time to ramp up supply of VLSFO, Tilayi says that imports have amply covered demand.

The Astron Energy 100,000 barrels-a-day refinery in Cape Town remains off-line following an explosion at the beginning of July and there has as yet been no announcement of a start-up date. However, Tilayi says that any supply shortfall can be covered by South Africa’s other refineries.
‘When we are out of balance in terms of supply in the Western Cape, product is moved from elsewhere in the country – the other refineries are all in commission at the moment so there is adequate fuel from other sources.’

Tilayi also points to the ‘consistent supply’ provided by the offshore bunker operation in Algoa Bay. Three companies have supply licences in this area – South African Marine Fuels, Minerva Bunkering (formerly Aegean Marine) and Colt Marine – and he notes that they are all active suppliers.

While the use of open loop scrubbers is currently under consideration in South Africa, he noted that the bulk of bunker demand is for low sulphur product and ‘generally there is almost no supply of high sulphur fuel’ in the country.

As in other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit port operations and cargo volumes in South African ports but Tilayi says there are now signs of a ‘very gradual recovery’.

‘Q1 volumes were very low and we have had some recovery, but nowhere near the volumes we have seen previously,’ he notes.

‘We have been progressively opening up the economy and volumes are picking up. I am glad that we never did stop trade altogether – the principle that it is the people that move the virus and not the trade itself allowed us to separate the two and deal with the issue of trade.’

Port State Control inspections were suspended at the country’s ports to reduce the interface with ships to a minimum, and to ensure capacity was in place to handle any emergencies, such as accidents or medical evacuations.

Cargo handling capacity was also scaled back to 50% capacity and that is gradually being brought back up.

In addition to the operational challenges at South African ports generated by the pandemic, Tilayi also highlights the issues relating to ‘the general interface between international high seas shipping and the ports’, notably problems over crew changes and crew repatriation.

‘The problem is how we interface with countries; we had South African ships that battled to repatriate crew from South Africa as well as crew working on foreign ships,’ he says.

Tilayi is, of course, not alone in his frustration over the treatment of ships’ crew during the pandemic, and many industry organisations and stakeholders have called for urgent and more cohesive action on the issue. Initially during the lockdown, South Africa allowed only for the repatriation of seafarers on repatriation flights and medical evacuations.

Since then, South Africa has gradually opened its borders to seafarers to allow seafarer crew changes to occur on commercial flights.

While processes were eventually put in place, logistical problems also led to delays.

As Tilayi explains, ‘while the rule was to get [the crew] off the ship onto the aeroplane, there were no aeroplanes waiting on the tarmac so you couldn’t get them off the ship – it became a very big balancing exercise.’

He suggests that there was a global failure in recognising the importance of crewing and repatriation issues.

‘You need a pragmatic government view – you have the IMO and the ILO and everyone discussed [the situation] but the individual states to those organisations didn’t have the sovereignty to decide what happens in their waters.’

Tilayi’s concern now is that momentum on these issues will begin to falter.

‘When you look at risk mitigation, it is a full country risk and there needs to be government sensitivity around the crewing situation.

‘I hope we don’t now lose the discussion – we should know how to deal with this.’

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