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LNG Takes Off With Ordering Boom and New Bunkering Infrastructure

jacques saade
File image courtesy CMA CGM

Published Jan 25, 2022 12:22 AM by The Maritime Executive

2021 was a banner year for the expansion of LNG as a marine fuel, according to industry association SEA-LNG. In its annual report, the group pointed to record-setting newbuild orders for dual-fuel LNG vessels and an expanding network of bunkering facilities as further evidence that this fuel option is a popular and growing choice for vessel operators. 

Citing data from Clarksons, SEA-LNG reports that LNG bunkering services will be available in 170 ports by the end of this year. In addition, over the course of 2021, LNG-fueled ships accounted for nearly 30 percent of the newbuild gross tonnage ordered worldwide, hitting a new record. For ULCVs, more than half the orderbook is either LNG-fueled or LNG-ready. 

LNG has been a particularly popular choice in the boxship segment. Over the course of the year, CMA CGM ordered 10 LNG-fueled ships, Zim chartered 10, Hapag-Lloyd took six and MSC switched some of its existing newbuilding orders over to LNG fuel. 

LNG bulkers, ferries and cruise ships are also taking off, and the car carrier segment is extending its interest in LNG. NYK laid out plans to to have 40 LNG-fueled PCTCs in service before the end of the decade, and MOL announced it wants 90 of its own by 2030. They are all expanding their orderbooks to match: UECC ordered three, K Line took eight, NYK took 12, MOL took four and Wallenius took two (with options for four more). 

SEA-LNG believes that these orders show the industry's confidence in the development of future supplies of bio-LNG and synthetic LNG, which could be metered into the supply of fossil LNG as they become available at scale. Quantities of bio-LNG are available today at several European ports, and the fuel has been used commercially at a 13 percent mix ratio by the boxship CMA CGM Jacques Saade. 

The commercial incentives for LNG vessel ownership are also strong, according to SEA-LNG, given the low and stable price of the fuel (under historical market patterns). The group estimated in 2020 that - when compared with other low-sulfur options like scrubbers or VLSFO - LNG offers "the best return on investment over a conservative 10-year horizon, with fast payback periods ranging from one to two years." LNG dual-fuel propulsion also offers commercial flexibility, as demonstrated in September, when some owners of LNG-fueled tonnage briefly switched to conventional bunker fuel amidst a spike in LNG prices.

SEA-LNG's research, carried out by consultancy Sphera, suggests that fossil LNG reduces well-to-wake greenhouse gas emissions by up to 23 percent. However, many climate advocates disagree, citing the high rate of methane leakage from natural gas wells, compressor stations and pipelines in many producing regions. Methane - the main component of natural gas - is estimated to be about 86 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time scale.

"LNG’s potential to help shipping reach its GHG reduction goals is questionable," wrote researchers for the World Bank in a report in August. "The availability of large amounts of sustainable and affordable biomass required to produce biomethane [bio-LNG] appears very uncertain. Additionally, synthetic carbon-based fuels like synthetic methane are expected to be more expensive than alternatives like ammonia or hydrogen."

In response to the World Bank's note, which advised against investing in LNG as a marine fuel, SEA-LNG said that only time would tell which solutions would help to decarbonize shipping. 

“To suggest that investments not be made in the LNG sector is unwise,” the group wrote in its response. "SEA-LNG believes strongly that the transition to future fuels must not follow this prescriptive approach. It is far too early to decide what the real potential of various alternatives fuels will be for a highly complex, hard-to-abate, global industry.”