Singapore has a message for shipping companies considering cheating on rules starting next year to combat pollution, in order to save a few dollars on their fuel bills: Don't.
Captains and owners of vessels that burn overly sulphurous fuel in the Asian country's territorial waters could face as long as two years in prison from the start of next year, according to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).
If enforced, such a penalty would probably be among the strongest deterrents yet to dodging regulations that are supposed to cut emissions of a pollutant blamed for asthma and acid rain.
From next year, the ships must emit 85 per cent less sulphur in most parts of the world than they do in most places today. The world's second-biggest port said that ships that fail to use an approved abatement technology such as a scrubber, alternative fuel or compliant fuel will also be considered non-compliant.
The MPA did not clarify precisely what rule infringement would incur a prison sentence.
Other penalties include a fine of up to $10,000.
Based on precedent in the US, the harshest penalties would likely be imposed if there were exacerbating factors like falsification of documents or obstructing justice, according to Ms Magdalene Chew, a director at AsiaLegal, and Mr Wole Olufunwa, a senior associate at Holman Fenwick Willan in Singapore.
"Presumably, this may be used as a yardstick comparison for what penalties imposed for breach of the sulphur cap may look like," Ms Chew and Mr Olufunwa, who specialise in shipping at the law firms, said in a joint e-mail.
The most severe penalty Singapore ever imposed for breaches of maritime air pollution regulations was more than two decades ago, said Ms Chew and Mr Olufunwa. Then, a vessel's owners, master and agents, who all pleaded guilty, were fined $400,000 each for "flagrant disregard of any concern for the marine environment".
The ship's master also received a three-month prison term for an oil spill charge, according to the law firms.
The penalties could mean tougher times for shipping firms as they prepare for the rules. To comply, companies can either purchase more expensive, cleaner fuel with less than 0.5 per cent sulphur content, or install pollution-reducing scrubbers that let them keep using oil with a higher sulphur content.
Such penalties matter far beyond the confines of individual port states because there is an expectation that many owners - particularly in Asia - could start by ignoring the sulphur-emission rules. The extent to which that happens will have an impact on the maritime industry's fuel-buying patterns.
However, with thousands of ships each year stopping in the island state to refuel while en route to other parts of Asia, the stiffer penalties could make many owners - and ship captains - more wary of cheating.
The penalties could mean tougher times for shipping firms as they prepare for the rules.
To comply, companies can either purchase more expensive, cleaner fuel with less than 0.5 per cent sulphur content, or install pollution-reducing scrubbers that let them keep using oil with a higher sulphur content.
To make matters worse, analysts question whether sufficient low-sulphur fuel will be available in time.
"MPA is also working closely with the industry to ease the transition to the requirements under the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) 2020 regulations," a spokesman said, adding that the authority has, along with the Singapore Shipping Association, issued technical guides on options available for ship operators to comply.
The authority will inspect both Singapore-registered ships as well as foreign-flagged vessels visiting the port, and employ fuel-testing service providers for detailed laboratory analysis of fuel samples.
It will also deploy electronic systems for ships to declare their method of compliance before arrival.
Along with other nations, Singapore already banned open-loop scrubbers from discharging wash water, the waste liquid containing impurities after airborne sulphur emissions have been removed.