Free Seaways Article: An ocean of change

25 Aug 2022 Institute News

The Nautical Institute and the GREEN Curriculum

The increasing focus on zero emission shipping is likely to have a considerable impact on maritime operations in the very near future. The shipping industry finds itself in something of a dilemma, with the imminent introduction of ‘green’ fuel policies leaving most, if not all, shipowners in a ‘catch-up’ situation in order to meet new requirements – and, perhaps just as importantly, new stakeholder expectations.

On one hand there can be little sympathy for an industry that has remained until recently stubbornly resistant to change. On the other, there is some mitigation given the overall uncertainty surrounding the correct choice of green fuel; a decision that involves huge capital investment and risk.

For a shipowner, selecting the wrong green fuel could prove catastrophic to the business and there is no safety net. A wrong choice could simply result in a termination of business. Further, international leadership has been lacking. There has been no emergence of a singular dominant solution, no easy fix. On the contrary, there has been hesitation and delay, a ‘not on my watch’ philosophy. The clock is ticking, ‘tempus fugit’, as it invariably does, and the time available to find a solution is becoming ever less.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom and there is some good news. It would be fair to say that the lack of guidance has spurred some enterprising ship-owners to grasp the hand lead-line and sound out a safe channel of their own. In previous articles, I have mentioned the likes of Maersk investing in their own dual fuel methanol container vessels and Fortescue Metals Group converting their super-sized bulkers to ammonia fuelled engines. Many more owners are now entering the race, and those already involved are upping the stakes. In the case of Maersk, the company is even investing in its own methanol production facilities to ensure a private fuel supply.

But these initiatives are in isolation. Whilst encouraging, we are only seeing a trickle of change. We need it to become a sea.

Those fortunate enough to attend our AGM will have been able to follow other presentations on a similar theme. I was particularly interested in the position of the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) which, I am pleased to report, is closely aligned to that of The Nautical Institute. But as usual, I felt there was one aspect that was missing and that was the focus on seafarer training for the ‘green’ fuels.

Perhaps I should clarify. There was great emphasis on seafarer training, but not enough focus on the upskilling requirements for seafarers to handle the proposed yet hazardous ‘green’ fuels. I have even received dismissive comments that it will be ‘alright on the night’, and that everything will be covered by STCW and the IGC Code. I have seen no empirical evidence to support this theory.

Among these comments is the argument that the industry does not require specific training for specific fuels, and that a generic provision will cover everything. This of course, is the default position of many shipowner/operators who believe that a continuation of today’s ineffectual but cheap training will suffice. Unfortunately, it seems likely that this will result in yet another tick box attendance exercise resulting in yet another piece of paper – without any real increase in safety at all.

Why we need specific training

It is true that all the proposed ‘green’ fuels are presently carried in bulk around the world, and in nearly all cases very safely and without incident. This is largely due to the expertise of the specialised carriers involved; the LNG and oil tanker operators, the product and multiparcel chemical operators. But these operators are well trained; it is their business to be experts in the carriage of these products and the responsible officers must all attend specific product courses in order to work on such vessels. Even then it takes years to progress through the ranks to senior positions of authority – it is no tick box exercise. Further, those handling the cargo are predominantly deck officers and the product is bulk cargo, in transit and in storage for the duration of the voyage.

So far, the LNG bulk shipping industry has proven remarkably safe, but it makes up a tiny percentage of global shipping with available figures showing 175 LNG fuelled vessels and over 600 tankers. There are approximately 55,000 IMO registered vessels trading internationally. We are now entering a different realm, where previously it was taken for granted that bunkering was a low hazard operation (save for pollution) and the use of the fuel was relatively low risk to the engineering department. All that is about to change. Now we are talking of using cryogenic fuels (LNG at -165°C and liquid hydrogen at -253°C) where there needs to be a constant high level of attention to the fuelling mechanism and maintenance of the plant. Hydrogen is the smallest known molecule in the universe and if there is a leak it will find it.

How do you fight fires and abandon ship with these green fuels? Our traditional fallback training of throwing water around will not work. On the contrary; in many instances, throwing water around exacerbates the situation. How many seafarers know how to stop an LNG spill or how to fight an LNG fire – bearing in mind LNG has a radiant heat nearly twice that of marine diesel oil, greatly increasing the risk of secondary fires? What medium is used to fight such a rapid fire, and is that scenario even plausible? Methanol burns with barely a flame. In a lighted space such as an engine room, a methanol fire is virtually undetectable with the naked eye, requiring sophisticated sensors. Ammonia poses even greater issues, being hugely toxic and requiring specialist PPE to handle. A loss of containment of ammonia would be instantly devastating to the immediate surround.

And what of life-saving appliances? Is a rubber life-raft any good in a loss of containment of LNG? Is a lifeboat any good in cryogenic temperatures? Where is SOLAS now? These fundamental questions require fundamental answers and not an ill-considered dismissal with a wave of the hand by someone who has never had to do it and therefore cannot empathise. To put it into context, even with my brief explanation of potential scenarios – and we haven’t even looked at long term exposure to health issues – a generic solution for crew training simply will not work. Seafarers need specialist individual skills if there is to be any hope of successful containment or even survival.

Recently, I read an article by a shipping journalist who described the ship-owning industry as ‘dangerous’. However, I believe the author was referring to risk rather than danger. Ship-owning may be risky, but going to sea is dangerous – and going to sea without the knowledge required to manage your own safety and that of the ship even more so.

The Green Curriculum

The Nautical Institute along with its partners are asking these questions and it is becoming apparent, at least in some quarters, that there requires to be a more weighty approach to this issue. Surely it is incumbent upon us as the world’s leading organisation of maritime professionals, to investigate this issue and to establish what we consider to be the minimum level of competencies required for seafarers to handle these green fuels safely? It is our contention, given the history of implementation of global ship safety standards, that the existing process will not be able to deliver effective solutions within the known timeframes.

From this starting position, The Nautical Institute and its partners have agreed that there is a clear need for a ‘Green Curriculum’ setting out what seafarers need to know and what skills they will need to develop to operate safely with the new fuels. It is this position paper that we are now introducing to our membership.

What is the ‘Green Curriculum’?

This initiative has brought together influential and respected organisations that collectively represent the seafarer in the global arena. Each of them brings a unique expertise to the table that collectively can bring about global change that will enhance seafarer standards.

Such collective expertise should demonstrate leadership in international standards that are designed to be used globally in order to avoid a fragmented approach, in particular with regards to safe handling by vessel crews of the proposed but hazardous green fuels.

STCW has been the backbone of seafarer competency since inception. While there are discussions in progress on future skills and the revision of STCW, this is unlikely to be achieved before 2030. The revised legislation and training provision and certification will take many years to accomplish. This potentially leaves us without a common standard in the interim, making it difficult to establish a consistent baseline of knowledge and skills required for safe operations. Moreover, without a clear universally agreed standard there is a danger of fragmentation as different operators and training providers adopt their own criteria, making it difficult for seafarers to transition between companies and be mobilised quickly.

The key focus of the Group will be on safety and people issues rather than construction and design – that is, on what our seafarers need to learn and what skills will they need to develop to operate safely with new fuels.

The work of this Group will aim towards developing a curriculum rather than a delivery solution. It will evaluate the competencies required for safe operation of green fuels and deliver a verifiable professional standard for training schemes, certification and accreditation.

This may involve: 

  • New aspects of specific fire-fighting techniques; 
  • The application of sophisticated PPE; 
  • Monitoring and maintenance; 
  • Bunkering requirements.

A global standard

We aim to develop a global standard for international education, enabling a harmonised independent certification solution delivered through The Nautical Institute. This must be distinctly separate from the current perceived minimum standards.

This standard will provide consistency, ensure quality and provide confidence to ship operators and related stakeholders.

This will be achieved by establishing a core working group of representatives from leading and respected organisations supplemented by advisors from other supporting bodies.

The group will seek to align and cooperate with relevant initiatives across the industry. For example, as part of the UN Global Compact and Shipping industry Just Transition Task force, DNV has been commissioned to develop a work stream which will identify new fuels issues, predict when new vessels will likely come on stream, when in what numbers and the volume of seafarers that will be impacted ie the number that will require new skills training. ICS, ITF and OTG will participate in this work and keep the group appraised of developments throughout this year. The initial scope was drawn up in April, and we expect delivery circa November 2022.

We cannot underestimate the challenge that awaits us in the transition to green fuels. Knowledge and skills development will be required at scale and we have a short window in which to put in place training and assessment provision. Moreover, there is need for this to be done to a common standard that ship operators, charterers, ports and terminals can rely on. This will require consultation and collaboration with multiple stakeholders as well as a good deal of combined effort to achieve.

In forming the Green Curriculum Working Group, we have begun to get this work underway.

Security and access

Establishing the basis for the Green Curriculum has not proven easy, and the process has been met with some obstruction, some predictable and some not. As work continues, we have identified another aspect to the new fuels that is not yet fully acknowledged, but which may prove the deciding factor in creating a recognition of the need for the Green Curriculum. That aspect is state security.

Many of you will recall 9/11 and the repercussions in the maritime sector in the shape of the rapid introduction of the International Ship and Port Security Code (ISPS Code). The Code was drawn up in haste and the IMO adopted it in record time. On the face of it, this was an insignificant small document, but it changed the way global shipping operated virtually overnight. The key point here is that the United States refused to accept any vessel into their country that did not comply with this Code.

Fast forward to the green fuels. All of the proposed green alternatives are more hazardous than existing marine fuel oils. Not only are they more hazardous to the crew, but importantly, for the first time they can pose a genuine security threat to the port locale and in particular the resident civilian population. This may get state attention in a way that the danger to crew does not – after all, up to this point, seafarer safety has been given scant regard.

I have heard various arguments on ways to mitigate the risk of the new fuels, including bunkering in remote locations as a possible solution. But the ship still has to come in to port carrying a much larger quantity of fuel than before (most of the new fuels have around 2.5 times the equivalent volume of traditional fuels, although liquid hydrogen requires five times as much space).

LNG has been safely carried for many years – so what’s new?

There are already concerns being voiced in various government circles on how best to tackle this issue. Even with the best training available, how can the risk to the civilian population be reduced to as low as is reasonably practicable? Is it permissible to risk the population of an insignificant city, as opposed to the centre of a capital city? Exactly what level of risk is acceptable?

These are real and legitimate issues that must be confronted and resolved in order for international ship-owner/operators to meet the zero emission targets. The human element may be the determining factor in meeting this challenge; and having higher skilled crew may prove decisive. Our ‘Green Curriculum’ can be downloaded here.