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Cheap oil slows appetite for LNG as alternative shipping fuel

[LONDON] Low oil prices are denting the take-up of liquefied natural gas as a cleaner source of energy to power ships, and it will be a few more years yet before the fuel makes serious inroads into the marine bunker market.

The global shipping sector is under pressure from governments to reduce harmful emissions from vessels, including sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (C02), by using cleaner fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) rather than traditional heavy fuel oil and diesel sources.

The momentum has increased since December's global climate deal in Paris, but industry officials say it will take time for LNG to grow as a bunker fuel because the infrastructure needed requires heavy investment at a time when companies are slashing budgets.

The low price of oil, which has tumbled as much as 70 per cent since mid-2014 and fell to around US$40 a barrel on Monday after a producers' meeting in Qatar to freeze output ended with no agreement, is also discouraging a shift away from traditional fuels.

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"We are not in the world of fuel stress at the moment ... when oil was over US$100 a barrel," said Paddy Rodgers, chief executive of oil tanker company Euronav. "Yes it is a fuel of the future, but not yet."

Norwegian LNG producer and industrial supplier Skangas told Reuters that shipowners have delayed planned conversions to LNG from diesel for up to two years due to the fall in oil prices.

International shipping accounts for around 2.2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions but the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency, projects maritime emissions will swell by 50 per cent by 2050 due to growth in world trade, 90 per cent of which is transported by ship.

According to industry estimates, using LNG instead of bunker fuels would reduce NOx and SOx emissions by 90-95 per cent and CO2 emissions by 20-25 per cent.

The Port of Gibraltar, the biggest bunkering hub in the Mediterranean, said offering LNG as a fuel was an option. "There is of course the price differential and the upfront cost of infrastructure," Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive of the Gibraltar Port Authority, told Reuters. "If the move is towards LNG, we will be watching and taking note of the market and what the demand is."

Most LNG-fuelled ships are car or passenger ferries, tugs and platform supply vessels.

As of March, there were 77 LNG-fuelled ships in operation worldwide out of over 50,000 vessels trading around the globe, according to ship and energy inspection firm DNV GL.

"The main challenge is that the price competitive advantage of LNG for fuel has been eroded in the short term," said Ryan Pereira, principal commercial manager of global gas and LNG at oil and gas consultancy firm Gaffney, Cline & Associates. "This could particularly affect smaller operators, who are less able to justify using LNG on the basis of its likely medium and long-term cost savings."

Stricter environmental regulation is however coaxing larger players to plan for the longer term.

The world's biggest LNG producer, Qatargas, and Royal Dutch Shell have agreed to develop LNG as a marine fuel for use by No 1 container line Maersk.

Russia's gas giant Gazprom and Belgium's Fluxys have agreed to cooperate on the small-scale LNG market in Europe.

Pereira said an estimated 15 million tonnes of LNG could be soaked up by the marine sector in the next five to seven years and up to 30 million tonnes by 2030.

"When you consider current LNG trade is circa 250 million tonnes a year, about 10 per cent of today's trade could come from the marine bunkering market."