Cruising for a Bruising

Ship's officer in the dock for breaking environmental regulations, but who is really to blame and who should shoulder the burden?

Captain Evans Hoyt is a cruise ship officer of vast experience who once gave evidence to a US Congressional Committee on cruise ship safety.

He now has a conviction from a French court for breaking environmental regulations.

The judge imposed a €100,000 fine, adding the proviso that 80% of the penalty be paid by Captain Hoyt’s employer, Carnival-owned P&O Cruises.

To its credit, Carnival stepped up to the plate.

Although it contested the idea that any offence had been committed – it almost immediately announced there would be an appeal against the conviction – it accepted that the captain had been acting on its instructions.

He knowingly bunkered a fuel with a sulphur content of more than 1.5%. That was in line with company policy, even though it was unclear whether a French court would see it as a breach of European Union sulphur regulations.

Those regulations were introduced in 2015 but enforcement has been patchy and it hasn’t always been clear if the regulations were meant to apply to passenger ships – specifically cruise ships – operating outside regular, scheduled routes.

The 1.68% sulphur fuel taken by Captain Hoyt’s ship in Barcelona was cheaper than fuel conforming to the 1.5% sulphur cap; the French prosecutor estimated that Carnival saved €21,000 by taking the higher sulphur material.

In the words of the prosecutor’s lawyer, Carnival had “wanted to save money at the expense of everyone’s lungs” – a reference to the additional atmospheric pollution high sulphur fuel causes.

But Carnival’s policy wasn’t just at the expense of cleaner air: it put at risk the reputation and freedom of Captain Hoyt.

The offence for which he was convicted could have seen him face a €200,000 fine and a year in prison.

Testing Times

This is an important principle to establish. In January 2020 the global sulphur cap for marine fuels will fall to 0.50%. Supplies of compliant fuel are expected to be tight.

The price difference between 0.50% sulphur product and higher sulphur fuel will be wide, possibly as much several hundred dollars per metric tonne.

The United States has suggested the regulations are too radical and should be phased in through ‘an experience-building phase’.

That is extremely unlikely to happen, but the US suggestion is one of the factors that risks creating a ‘permissive environment’ where transgressors may feel little cause for shame.

Enforcement of the 0.50% sulphur cap is anyway likely to vary between jurisdictions. The financial incentives to cheat will be plain and some operators may regard non-compliance as a tempting, calculated risk.

That risk would fall disproportionally hard on ships’ officers.

Prosecutors finding ships in breach of the rules will, as was shown in the case of Captain Hoyt, be just as ready to aim at seafarers as at the companies the employ them.

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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