Bunker fuel used for global shipping has traditionally allowed a much greater flexibility on specifications than other transport fuels; oil refineries have been able to supply bunker fuel as a by-product of their operations with sulphur levels of up to 3.5%. However, to counter the environmental effects of this, the IMO announced a cap on sulphur emissions for shipping fuel to the equivalent of burning fuel with 0.5% sulphur content.
Achieving this lower sulphur fuel shifts bunker fuel from by-product status to an on-purpose, on-specification fuel with knock-on effects throughout the refining process. This has deep implications for the operations and economics of oil refineries, particularly in Europe. Historically, demand for high sulphur marine fuel has not forced capital investment on oil refineries as crude diet adjustments could satisfy demand fluctuations without additional physical asset changes. As the IMO 2020 regulation comes into effect, this is now changing with plants having to develop detailed investment plans to react and remain profitable and competitive going forward.
These changes don’t just affect the process and supply chain aspects of the refinery. With new operating modes and economic drivers, the impact for physical asset management and integrity will also be significant. While the IMO 2020 regulation will create economic opportunities for some refineries and challenges for others, both scenarios will put pressure on reliability and integrity teams to keep equipment running. Crucially, reaction to the regulation is not a gentle change to slowly adapt to and work through. On January 1st 2020, the regulations will come into force with full effect and could be decisive in the future of many facilities. While all of this has been known to the process optimization and supply chain teams for some time, the impact on integrity and reliability of assets is more of an unknown.
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