Ballast Convention - Making it a Success

In September 2017, the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention will enter into force. ICS is committed to making it a success. 

Thirteen years after its original adoption by IMO Member States, the Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention will enter into force in September 2017. It has already proved to be one of the most complex and controversial pieces of technical regulation ever agreed by IMO. However, there may now be light in sight at the end of a very long tunnel. 

ICS fully supports the intention of the BWM Convention, which is to address the problem of invasive marine organisms having damaging impacts on local ecosystems through their unwitting transportation in ships’ ballast tanks. However, it was adopted under huge political pressure back in 2004, when the technology required for ships to treat millions of gallons of ballast water simply did not exist outside of a laboratory. As a consequence, the enormous costs of installing completely unproven systems were dramatically underestimated, first by the manufacturers, and then by governments who believed what they wanted to hear. 

In 2017, the total cost of ensuring compliance across the entire world fleet is estimated to be about US$100 billion. But after so many years of delay, the entry into force of the Convention should at least give shipowners some of the certainty needed to make important decisions about whether to retrofit the new equipment or, because of the prohibitive cost (US$1- 5 million per ship) send older ships for early recycling. 

But the Convention’s imminent entry into force still presents ship operators with a serious challenge because of the expected lack of shipyard and manufacturing capacity needed to retrofit the new treatment systems on around 40,000 vessels over a five year period. The situation has been further complicated by the United States which is not a Party to the BWM Convention. The U.S. has unilaterally adopted its own ballast water regulations, with which ships trading to the U.S. must already comply. 

In October 2016, following a major industry campaign led by ICS over several years, the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) finally adopted revised and more robust type-approval standards to be included in what will soon become a mandatory Code for Approval of Ballast Water Management Systems – the previous ‘G8’ Guidelines having been found by shipowners to be inadequate in a number of key areas. IMO has recommended that administrations apply these revised standards as soon as possible. However, they will not become mandatory for new system approvals until 28 October 2018 and only systems being installed after October 2020 will be required to have been approved in accordance with the new Code. 

In the meantime, apart from the possible shortage of shipyard and manufacturing capacity to retrofit around 40,000 systems, many shipping companies – through no fault of their own – face critical decisions. They will potentially be required to install expensive new equipment that may not be guaranteed to operate correctly in all of the normal operating conditions they would reasonably be expected to face when ballasting and de-ballasting during worldwide service. These decisions are all the more difficult if the ships are approaching the end of their typical 25 year life. 

At the MEPC meeting in October 2016, IMO Member States made some progress towards unpicking this unprecedented regulatory mess, in the knowledge that the Convention will be entering into force globally in just a few months’ time. 

As well as adopting the revised guidelines for type-approval, the MEPC also reiterated its agreement on a road map that will hopefully ensure that most Port State Control authorities will not unfairly penalise ‘early movers’ – companies which, in good faith, have already installed treatment systems that were tested and approved under the IMO type-approval guidelines adopted before the 2016 revision. The United States, however, unhelpfully continues to reserve its position on this part of the IMO package. 

Because of the lack of confidence in the IMO type-approval process, and the previous uncertainty as to when the Convention would enter into force, very few existing ships have so far been retrofitted with the required treatment systems, the installation of which will soon become mandatory, creating a log jam in available yard capacity. But there is also little logic, from an environmental protection standpoint, in requiring thousands of ships to comply until they can be fitted with systems that have been approved under the more stringent 2016 standards. 

Following a welcome submission to IMO in 2016 by Liberia, and a separate submission by shipowner organisations including ICS, the MEPC has begun consideration of whether the implementation schedule for installing ballast water management systems should be further amended, perhaps extending the date by which all ships must have installed a system to 2024 from 2022. 

The additional two years would be facilitated by allowing ships that would currently be expected to fit a system by their first International Oil Pollution Prevention (IOPP) survey following the entry into force of the Convention to wait until the date of their second IOPP renewal survey. If agreed, this would allow shipping companies to identify and invest in far more robust technology to the benefit of the environment. The MEPC is expected to take a final decision on the implementation schedule at its meeting in July 2017. 

It is no secret that ICS was previously ambivalent about encouraging flag states to ratify the BWM Convention in advance of the serious implementation issues being fully resolved. But now that it is certain that the Convention will enter into force, ICS is encouraging all IMO Member States to ratify as soon as possible, in order to ensure uniform global implementation and to pre-empt the possibility of further unilateral action by local environmental authorities. 

The process leading up to the entry into force of the BWM Convention has been difficult and fraught. But as a result of the sustained efforts led by ICS, the industry will hopefully soon have the clarity it needs in order to get on with the job and, in the interest of environmental protection, make the global implementation of this important piece of legislation a success.

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