In his recent policy address, The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, confirmed the Hong Kong Government’s intention to introduce legislation during 2014 requiring all ocean-going vessels at berth in Hong Kong to switch to low sulphur fuel oil. According to Hong Kong Government statistics, the emissions of ocean-going vessels while at berth account for some 40% of their total emissions within Hong Kong waters.

In this regard, under the Fair Winds Charter, established in January 2011 by the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association, the Hong Kong Shipowners Association and the Civic Exchange, a number of shipowners voluntarily agreed that their vessels would switch to fuel with a sulphur content of less than 0.5% while at berth. While the scheme is widely regarded as having been a success (the scheme is the only one of its kind and was renewed for a further year in 2013), the decision to make the use of low sulphur fuel oil mandatory has generally been well received by industry and other stakeholders.

There has been a detailed consultation process in relation to the proposed legislation, and the expectation is that it will require vessels berthing (including anchoring) in Hong Kong to initiate a switch to low sulphur fuel oil, defined as fuel oil with a sulphur content of less than 0.5%, no later than when the vessel has finished with the main engine, and to continue using low sulphur fuel oil until not earlier than one hour before departure. There are likely to be exemptions in cases where the switch poses a risk to the vessel, an unexpected delay in departure occurs, or the vessel is expected to berth for less than two hours.

In terms of penalties for breach, they are likely to be consistent with those under the Air Pollution Control Ordinance (Cap. 311) and its subsidiary regulations and comprise a maximum fine of HK$200,000 (about US$25,000) and/or imprisonment for up to six months.

Obviously, it will be important for shipowners to be aware of their obligations under the legislation once it comes into force, which is expected to be in 2015. Further, while the likelihood is that the provisions in most standard form period charters dealing with the charterers’ obligation to provide and pay for bunkers would oblige the charterers to provide sufficient low sulphur fuel oil for calling in Hong Kong, the obligation is certainly not beyond doubt. Shipowners should therefore consider insisting on clauses that specifically deal with this obligation.