The world fleet of LNG carriers is expanding fast. A record 85 newbuilding contracts agreed at substantially higher prices in 2021 will boost today’s 610 deep sea trade LNG ships and we expect another year of record contracting in 2022. Ten more LNG carriers were ordered in the first few days of January, taking the orderbook up to more than 130 ships, close to 20% of existing fleet capacity. With projects lined up however this number could easily triple soon.

In these conditions, concerns are raised about regulatory compliance. We are likely to have a shortage of ships that comply with the IMO’s carbon intensity indicator (CII) from 2025 onwards. This could limit charterers’ options, propel rates for compliant ships to new highs, and ultimately put a brake on the world’s decarbonisation process to the extent that this is driven from the coal to gas shift.

The supply squeeze is inevitable despite the arrival of several newcomers in LNG construction. The handful of specialist builders, including South Korea’s Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung and China’s Hudong, have been joined recently by Dalian Shipbuilding and Jiangnan Shipbuilding. Despite the newcomers, LNG builders are full until 2025 for a sector which historically presented a capacity of approximately 30 units a year.

Meanwhile LNG trade is predicted to grow by 250 million tonnes per annum, until 2030, according to MSI and IGU forecasts putting even more pressure on the shipbuilding sector.

Older technology steamers

Here are the challenges to today’s existing fleet. There are about 250 elderly steam turbine vessels which typically have a daily boil-off rate (BOR) of about 0.15% of cargo. These ships were designed to use ‘Boil-Off’ for propulsion. In this manner their propulsion arrangements did not look on efficiency but to the productive consumption of liquid turning into gas. For this reason, boilers coupled with steam turbines seemed like a good match despite its efficiency being marginally over 30%, or even lower when away from the optimum operating point like in ‘slow steaming’ conditions.

The next stage of LNG ship design moved from steamers to four-stroke, dual- or tri-fuel diesel-electric propulsion systems, using types of marine fuels or LNG. These vessels, with lower BORs of around 0.1%, have smaller engines and better efficiency of more than 40%. There are about 150 of these ships in the fleet today.

The latest generation of two-stroke LNG vessels have BORs as low as 0.07%. Their efficiency is almost or marginally below 50% and these vessels are equipped with reliquefaction plants on board to convert any excess boil-off back into liquid cargo.

So, during a slow canal transit, for example, or port operations when propulsion power is not required, operators of such vessels can conserve cargo and its value. There are about 210 of these ships in operation today, making up the balance of the fleet.

CII fleet impact

The first two ship categories, well over half of the existing fleet, are unlikely to achieve CII ratings of A, B, or C when they are gauged next year. This means that ships rated E will have to undergo carbon-efficiency improvements immediately (a subject which I will cover in my next blog) and owners of D-rated vessels will have to ensure that ships become more fuel efficient within the three following years.

However, since CII assessments will become progressively stricter from 2027 until the end of the decade, ships which are adapted to meet CII requirements by 2024/5 may subsequently fall into categories D and E later in the decade. Owners of these older vessels will then be faced with the decision over whether to invest in expensive sustainability measures, sell them for conversion to floating LNG plants, or dispose of them for recycling.

So, on one hand, there is limited scope to raise supply to meet the growing demand for seaborne LNG because shipbuilders have no extra capacity. On the other, you have a majority of ships in the fleet which are unlikely to meet CII requirements from 2025 onwards, in what could resemble to a perfect storm!

Decarbonisation delay

Ultimately, in a macro context, this has serious implications. The most important aspect of global decarbonisation is to stop the use of coal in power generation. Key economies such as China and India still rely heavily on this worst type of carbon-generating energy source.

LNG offers the best available energy source to replace coal and achieve a carbon reduction of about 50% in the process. But if there is insufficient shipping capacity, or the price is too high, consumers will not switch from coal to gas and ultimately the global decarbonisation process will be set back.

Clearly, no-one wants this to happen. However, this means that the decision on managing the application of CII to the existing LNG fleet needs to be addressed in a sensitive and substantiated manner, radical changes could have the exact opposite effect.

CII Calculator

Use our interactive CII calculator to review your vessel’s carbon intensity indicator rating, based on the latest IMO guidelines. You can also trial different scenarios to assess the impact on compliance status.