The idea of LNG as a bridging fuel should not deter shipowners from making the right choices today, writes SGMF’s Mark Bell.
Like any community, the LNG as a marine fuel sector has developed its own language. In the early days, it was all chickens and eggs as the sector grappled with the early investments needed from shipowners and fuel suppliers. More recently phrases like ‘bridge’ and ‘transition’ have become common as people attempt to place LNG in the context of the wider decarbonisation of shipping.
Language can obscure as well as illuminate. Listen to the dialogue between any emergency room doctor and nurse. Their jargon may help them communicate more effectively, but the uninitiated bystander will have no idea what is happening. Shipping, with its DWT, GT, VLCC, ULCS, LBV and STS, can also leave casual observers baffled. And in their rush for a pithy phrase, there is a chance that advocates of LNG may have misdirected the very people they are trying to reach.
Take the description of LNG as a ‘bridge’ or ‘transition’ fuel. The idea is that LNG, while not a perfect solution, is a good option until a better fuel comes along. This is a fair reflection. LNG outperforms all current options in environmental terms, with dramatic improvements in emissions of local air pollutants nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulphur oxide (SOx) and particulate matter (PM), as well significant reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2). Those benefits may not be enough on their own to reach the targeted 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across the global fleet by 2050. And the escape of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane needs to be addressed. But LNG is a good first step and the only compliant step available to shipowners today.
But the idea of a bridge can be problematic, as delegates discussed at virtual Gas Fest 2020, a series of online discussions hosted by the Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF) during November 2020. The need for clear, positive and proactive communication was the main theme in the first session, titled ‘Debunking the myths’. A group representing shipowners, engine developers, fuel suppliers and class societies cut through the confusion that has often clouded the perception of LNG as a marine fuel.
That confusion, in part caused by the language around LNG, has real consequences. Shipowners need certainty over a long period before they invest in ships. The image of LNG as ‘only’ a bridge fuel, combined with a widespread view of zero-carbon fuels as being closer to viability than they really are, could paralyse investment decisions. That could in turn lead to shipping not taking steps to reduce emissions today, and thus missing future environmental targets.
In reality, shipping has seen a succession of ‘bridge fuels’, from oars to sails to steam to diesel. And whether we are using heavy fuel oil (HFO) or very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO), we are all burning hydrogen already, but with carbon as the carrier. Although methane is also a hydrocarbon, its significant emission benefits mean LNG could be a useful bridge fuel for a long time yet. Other non-carbon carriers such as nitrogen (in ammonia), or even pure hydrogen, will require costly and lengthy investment.
Shipping got the crude barrel dregs in the last round. Perhaps this time it should be at the forefront of fuel selection. After all, ships must carry their fuel with them. It may be hydrogen, ammonia, methanol or something else, depending on a whole variety of factors (many of which are beyond the control of the shipping industry). But the ‘bridge’ metaphor has perhaps failed to convey any helpful specifics about how these future steps are linked to the use of LNG today.
How long the bridge will be is another important and unanswered question. Oil has lasted for 100 years already. And with only 0.3% of ships running on LNG after 20 years – and carbon-neutral fuels not available imminently – this bridge could even be longer. Appreciating the longevity of LNG and the wait for other alternatives is critical for shipowners when considering whether to build gas-fuelled ships now or opt straight for carbon-neutral fuels.
Linked to this question is the impression that LNG is only a short-term solution. But placed in the wider context of shipping’s decarbonisation, LNG has both a foundational role for other fuels and its own long-term future. The spread of gas as a marine fuel – the infrastructure, the vessels, the safety measures and the international regulations – has laid a pathway and framework for other future fuels to follow. Bio methane and synthetic methane are natural progressions, and methanol, which was finally included alongside LNG in the IGF Code in November, is a case in point.
Other fuels may be more challenging. Ammonia is toxic, corrosive and presents a huge NOx challenge when burned in an engine. Overcoming these challenges may lead to a very long bridge indeed.
LNG frameworks are designed with other low flashpoint fuels in mind, although knowing that they remain perhaps over the horizon. SGMF exists to ensure the safe and sustainable use of any gaseous marine fuel, not just LNG. Much of the work by SGMF and its members is to ensure that best practice is applied, but also that emissions performance and practical considerations are understood.
But LNG is not just a forerunner. It also has a future in its own right. The ‘bridge’ idea often fails to illustrate this incremental role. The use of LNG as fuel together with continuous technology improvements will gradually improve shipping’s emissions impact. The use of biogas or synthetic methane, first as a drop-in fuel and eventually replacing fossil LNG, will only improve the well-to-wake footprint for methane. With enough availability, vessels could exceed IMO 2050 targets through the progressive use of bridged methane – natural, then biogas, then synthetic. Fossil LNG is the vital first step in reducing carbon for shipping.
This view of LNG as a trailblazer for alternative fuels and part of the long-term solution could help to dispel the ‘us vs them’ tone that can emerge when advocates promote their future fuel preferences. Too often, LNG is pitched against alternatives. But if shipowners view LNG as fundamental to the emissions reduction journey, rather than a stage to be skipped over, there is a better chance that we will reach the emission targets on the other side of the bridge.
Society for Gas as a Marine Fuel (SGMF)
Tel: +44 20 3637 1455