Shipping industry sails into unknown with new pollution rules

A cargo ship berthing at Qingdao port in Qingdao in China's eastern Shandong province. (File/AFP)
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Updated 12 December 2019

Shipping industry sails into unknown with new pollution rules

  • New rules aim to avert 570,000 premature deaths by 2025
  • Regulation kicks in Jan. 1, shipping sector nervous

LONDON: Faced with imminent new global marine pollution rules, shipping companies and insurers are puzzling over the risks.
To reduce emissions of toxic sulfur that cause premature deaths, shipowners who have long relied on the dirtiest residues of oil extraction will have to either switch to low-sulfur fuel or install exhaust gas cleaning systems from Jan. 1.
Neither option has been fully tested for long, and some problems have already been reported, both with the more expensive new fuels and with devices known as scrubbers which extract the sulfur on board.
Interviews with key players in the industry show varying levels of alarm at potential risks, which they say range from unexpected fires or collisions due to engine failure to liability for inadvertently flouting the rules.
The container shipping industry alone is having to invest $10 billion to adhere to the new rules, analysts say, and is concerned about extra costs were things to go wrong.
If different types of the new, cleaner fuel are mixed, for example, they may produce a residue which could eventually clog up an engine and, in a worst-case scenario, damage or break it.
Several large ship owners said handling the new fuels correctly and making sure the scrubbers were properly deployed would minimize danger, but that if care was not taken, problems could arise.
“The big guys are going to be serviced by the right people … there is bigger risk for the smaller ships,” Hugo De Stoop, chief executive of leading Belgian tanker operator Euronav , told Reuters.
Euronav has bought the equivalent of almost six months’ supply of compliant fuel and is storing it in a megatanker off Malaysia. If a ship is too far away and has to buy fuel, it will try to buy a single type, or, if only a blend is available, ask to see the seller’s lab tests.
“We don’t always believe that people have done the test, been diligent about it,” he said.
Khalid Hashim, managing director of one of Thailand’s largest dry cargo ship owners, Precious Shipping, said it had not allowed co-mingling of marine fuel, also known as bunker fuel, for over five years and required all of it to be sample tested.
“Of course this costs us annually around $100,000, but we prefer that cost than to use untested bunker oil based solely on the Bunker Delivery Receipt and find that we have a massive problem on our ship,” he said.
The company had taken measures to reduce its ships’ fuel consumption to offset some of the extra costs and had installed extra compartments for the tanks on board to avoid mixing, he said.
“That way we would have future-proofed our ships for the IMO 2020 regime,” Hashim said, referring the UN International Maritime Organization’s rules, agreed by more than 90 countries in hopes of saving more than half a million lives by 2025 alone.
Around 172 ships have avoided the problem because they are powered by sulfur-free liquefied natural gas (LNG), data from Norwegian risk management and certification company DNV GL showed, but this in an expensive option.
Some ship owners have balked at paying for the new 0.5% sulfur fuel, which is quoted at more than twice the price of the 3.5% high-sulfur grade in northern Europe at the moment.
More than 3,000 ships — around 5% of the global fleet — will have scrubbers fitted by 2020 so they can clean the exhaust gas and so continue using existing fuel, the DNV GL data showed.
Some ports have banned one type of scrubber, the open-loop version which empties washwater residues into the sea, and insurers have reported cases of fires or corrosion with the devices.
Norwegian ship insurer Gard cited a few cases where sparks from welding or cutting fell into a scrubber through uncovered openings: in one case it spread to the engine room through glass reinforced epoxy piping.
If corrosion was legally deemed to be inevitable, underwriters might try to deny related claims, said Stephen Harris, senior vice president with insurance broker Marsh.
“Whether underwriters adopt this line or not could depend on how frequent and how big the problem becomes next year.”
Roger Strevens, VP of global sustainability with Norwegian shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen, said its experience with scrubbers had shown risks could be minimized if done properly. “If you buy cheap, you’ll pay twice,” he said.
Nautilus International, a union which represents over 20,000 workers in shipping, said the use of new fuel types would place extra strain on crews, who have reported incidents including power loss when changing fuels, filter problems and leaks.
“These are complex requirements,” Nautilus professional and technical officer David Appleton said, calling for comprehensive training and protection in cases of inadvertent infringements.
An underlying problem is that oil refineries are not obliged to produce tailor-made shipping fuel, said Neil Roberts, head of marine underwriting at Lloyd’s Market Association, which represents the interests of all underwriting businesses in London’s Lloyd’s insurance market.
“The ship’s crew has to test it and filter it,” he said.
The IMO said it does not have a remit to regulate the fuel industry but that international standards for the new fuel and information about compatibility between types had been issued as part of comprehensive preparations.
“IMO is ready, and we are confident IMO member states and the shipping sector are ready for January 1,” an IMO spokesperson said.
Protection and Indemnity (P&I) clubs, through which groups of shipping companies cover injury and pollution claims, are in wait-and-see mode.
Alvin Forster, deputy director with North P&I club, cited possible engine failure in busy shipping lanes, while Precious Shipping’s Hashim said members investing in expensive low-sulfur fuel should not have to share the loss on any scrubber claims.
Harris from Marsh, a broker active in marine insurance including hull and machinery, said assessing cover was still guesswork: for instance, who should pay a fine for a ship using high-sulfur fuel because no alternative was available?
“Is it non-compliance?” he said. “The question marks are bigger than the answers.”


Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

Updated 20 February 2020

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

  • Human and artificial intelligence are racing ahead to detect and control outbreaks of infectious disease

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?

In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.

Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments to save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.

What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.

For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It is difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.

The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.

Early warning systems that scansocial media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.

“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”

The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.

Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.

ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first
notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.

Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there is almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.

“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.

Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques are not so novel.

“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”

Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.

Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of the tick-borne Lyme disease.

Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.