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Analysis: ExxonMobil announces mutually compatible 0.5% sulfur bunker fuel blends

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Analysis: ExxonMobil announces mutually compatible 0.5% sulfur bunker fuel blends

London — Global producer ExxonMobil has announced its range of new 0.5% sulfur marine fuel blends will be compatible with each other, alleviating one of the shipping industry's biggest concerns about compliance with tighter sulfur limits in 2020 and raising the possibility these fuels will be sold at a premium to other 0.5% sulfur blends.

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Related podcast: Refiners announce first details of new 0.5% sulfur bunker fuels

When the International Maritime Organization's global bunker sulfur limit drops to 0.5% from 3.5% at the start of 2020, most of the world's shipowners are expected to comply by switching from high sulfur fuel oil to new 0.5% sulfur blends being developed by refiners. Little detail has emerged about these new fuels so far, and there have been widespread concerns about their compatibility.

When incompatible fuels are mixed together in a single tank, or come into contact with each other elsewhere in the fuel system, they are prone to separation, meaning they form sludge that can block filters and cause engine failure. Because a wide range of refinery feeds will be used to make the new 0.5% sulfur fuels, many of the new blends are thought likely to be incompatible with each other, causing huge logistical difficulties for shipowners planning when and where to bunker their vessels after 2020.

Exxon saying it has produced compatible fuels to be available at ports across Europe and Asia -- details on the Americas have yet to be announced -- goes some way toward alleviating these problems, potentially making its fuels more attractive than other 0.5% sulfur blends. That could mean shipowners would be willing to pay a premium for Exxon's products.

"It makes sense that what they're aiming for [is a premium 0.5% pricing structure]," a trader at Rotterdam said. "Their products now are also more pricey due to better quality."

Exxon's HDME 50 product -- a 0.1% sulfur ULSFO designed as a cheaper alternative to marine gasoil for use in the European emissions control area -- currently typically commands a $5-10/mt premium over other ULSFO products, the trader said.

"I think that, to begin with, owners will gravitate towards the larger suppliers which have been forthcoming with their specifications and have at least tried addressing some of the issues -- for example, Exxon or Shell," an analyst said. "They will also have the breadth of coverage for owners to be able to procure bunkers from one supplier in multiple locations without running into co-mingling issues."

"I wouldn't be able to speculate that one blend will be able to be priced at a premium to the others," the analyst added. "The only way I can see that happening is if one blended fuel is widely acknowledged to have the best properties and is fairly stable when being mixed with other blends from other suppliers."

In an interview with S&P Global Platts in March, Exxon's marine fuels technical adviser, John LaRese, declined to be drawn on the subject of whether its 0.5% sulfur fuels would come at a premium to their competitors' blends.

"The market will eventually decide pricing and where fuels are," he said. "You have to look at the cost of production."

"And to reduce the sulfur in the fuel, there's a cost to doing that, and where it's produced with a distillate base, distillate-based fuels are typically more expensive to produce than residual-based ones, and that would be reflected," he added.

--Jack Jordan, jack.jordan@spglobal.com

--Eleni Pittalis, eleni.pittalis@spglobal.com

--Emma Kettley, emma.kettle@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Dart, jonathan.dart@spglobal.com