Op-Ed: Bio-LNG En Route to Deliver Decarbonization

(Image courtesy SEA-LNG)

Published Jun 7, 2023 5:06 PM by Peter Keller

The zero-emissions profile, availability, and cost of bio-LNG as a marine fuel have been widely discussed in the maritime industry. This includes in my last article, ‘The Emergence of Bio-LNG’ and The Maritime Executive’s coverage of the latest independent study commissioned by SEA-LNG – ‘The Role of Bio-LNG in the Decarbonization of Shipping’.

The expanding use of bio-LNG and the regulations surrounding its use continues to evolve as we travel down the LNG pathway to decarbonization. Work is now focused on the finer details such as the realization of regulations, feedstock traceability, and cementing the next steps on the journey. These practical discussions highlight the growing maturity of the bio-LNG value chain and its place in the LNG pathway that SEA-LNG has been highlighting for years.

Reaching the Regulatory Mile Marker

The journey to decarbonization is an incremental one, as recognized in the recent agreement in Brussels on FuelEU Maritime. This European legislation sets out probably the world’s most ambitious path to zero-emission shipping. 

FuelEU Maritime has outlined greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity targets for all energy used onboard ships larger than 5,000 gross tonnes for intra-EU voyages, and 50% of the energy used on ships stopping in the EU and sailing to or from ports outside the EU. The trajectory specified starts with a 2% reduction in intensity by 2025 over a 2020 baseline, 6% by 2030, 14.5% by 2035, 31% by 2040, 62% by 2045, and 80% by 2050. 

The use of LNG as a marine fuel enables vessels to be compliant with the well-to-wake GHG intensity targets proposed under the legislation until 2039, depending on engine technology. Following the LNG pathway, the use of a 20% drop-in blend of bio-LNG can extend compliance for a further 5 years. Thereafter, compliance can be achieved through increasing use of blends containing bio-LNG and its electro-fuel cousin, renewable synthetic (e-) LNG produced from renewable hydrogen as and when it becomes available together with other anticipated green fuels.

This compliance with FuelEU Maritime and strong performance within its framework highlights that the LNG pathway to decarbonization is not only a viable one but also a strong and practical route for shipowners and operators to continue to consider. The commercial weight behind LNG is proof that shipowners recognize this fact. Shipping stakeholders are investing in LNG because it provides a low risk, incremental pathway for decarbonization, starting now, not years or even a decade in the future. 

Putting the right Gas in the Tank

For bio-LNG to be a zero-emission fuel, it must be produced from sustainable biomass feedstocks, i.e., those that do not compete with food, fiber, or fodder production. This generally means it is derived from waste streams, residuals from agricultural or forestry residues, as well as dedicated non-food energy crops grown on marginal land unsuitable for food production. This is not a challenge to bio-LNG supply as these feedstocks are plentiful and widely distributed.

Currently, the main way to produce bio-LNG (liquified biomethane) is through a process called anaerobic digestion. Here one puts waste biomass, mainly agricultural slurries, into a digester where it produces biogas. This biogas is then cleaned to remove impurities resulting in streams of pure biomethane and other commercially valuable byproducts.

While the traceability of bio-LNG supply chains and resulting certification is an international challenge that will require continued global collaboration, the EU does already have standards in place. Namely the revised Renewable Energy Directive (EU) 2018/2001 (RED II). Certification schemes like the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification EU (ISCC EU) are compliant with this standard and are recognized by the European Commission. These certification schemes ensure that bio-LNG can be traced back to a sustainable source.

This means it is increasingly simple for ship owners and operators, bio-LNG suppliers, and regulators to ensure that they’re putting the right gas, from the right source, in the tank. The recent bunkering of MSC’s new cruise vessel, the MSC Euribia, with bio-LNG supplied by Gasum, sets a new global standard for vessels operating at net zero emissions through the use of bio-LNG. When bio-LNG from sustainable biomass feedstocks is used, the net-zero or net-negative emissions benefits are clear. Further, there is a significant contribution to the circular economy offered by bio-LNG as it turns waste into a viable product.

Comparing the Viable Routes

Just as your satellite navigation systems might compare multiple routes to a destination, the shipping industry must compare its routes to zero emissions. The sat nav’s computer evaluates each route based on a consistent set of metrics and calculations and we must do the same for the emissions, availability, cost, and safety implications of each alternative fuel. We must compare alternative fuel pathways on a like-to-like basis.

It is also important to recognize that there can be multiple viable routes to decarbonization. Just as today, different vessel types may favor certain fuels due to design and operational considerations, that will continue into the future. SEA-LNG has long stated that there are likely to be a basket of alternative fuels and technologies if shipping is to reach its decarbonization destination. Our coalition believes the LNG pathway currently offers the safest, most practical, and realistic, cost-competitive pathway to net zero for maritime. It also is the only pathway with significant infrastructure in place thereby freeing the industry from massive investments into untried technologies.

The shipping industry is making newbuild investment decisions right now that will impact emissions today and for the next 25-30 years, the typical lifetime of a deep-sea vessel. Shipowners and operators need factual and practical like-for-like analysis that can inform their decisions and actions. 

Acting now on shipping’s GHG emissions is a key point. Waiting is not an option. GHG emissions are cumulative and the longer low-emission, zero-emission, and net zero fuel decisions are delayed, the more carbon continues to accumulate in our atmosphere. Shipowners and operators can start down the LNG pathway to decarbonization now because the technologies are mature, and the fuel and infrastructure are in place. The LNG pathway to decarbonization looks like a four-lane highway, while some alternative routes look more like dirt tracks with the first paving is only in the initial planning phase. 

Peter Keller is the chairman of SEA-LNG, a multi-sector industry coalition established to demonstrate LNG's benefits as a viable marine fuel.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.