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‘Gesture politics’: Concerns over Scotland’s chaotic move to green ferries



They were lauded by then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as the ‘sustainable’ ferries that would “contribute to Scotland’s world-leading climate change goals”.

The two ferries at the centre of Scotland’s ferry fiasco were to be able to operate on liquefied natural gas (LNG) which the Scottish Government ferry owners Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd said was “significantly cleaner and will help to reduce emissions to meet ambitious Scottish Government targets”.

But some have questioned the sanctioning of the move to ‘green’ LNG after it was revealed work on crucial infrastructure has not started yet – while one of two LNG tanks involved in a £5m contract are no longer needed.

Questions have been raised about how the ferries will be fuelled in the wake of LNG infrastructure problems.

The latest completion date given by the Danish supplier is the “beginning of 2025” – well after the latest dates for the delivery to Scottish Government-controlled ferry operator CalMac of the much-delayed and over-budget vessels Glen Sannox and the so-far unnamed Hull 802.

Transport secretary Fiona Hyslop in a letter to East Lothian MP and Alba Party deputy leader Kenny MacAskill said that there is currently a review of the associated infrastructure requirements for LNG and until complete was unable to even provide an idea of the costs.

Eyes have also been raised about the logistics of getting LNG to Scotland – while four new vessels being built in Turkey will not be powered by the ‘green’ fuel at all.

CMAL has previously said that the two vessels would reduce the carbon footprint of the ferry fleet by 25 per cent.

According to a 2022 Scottish Government briefing, LNG will have to be shipped from the Isle of Grain in Kent – a near 500 mile journey by road.

CalMac has been told that it is not yet feasible to use LNG-powered trucks due to the size of the fuel tanks required and a lack of refuelling infrastructure.

CalMac’s latest customer information about LNG says it will “undoubtedly improve emissions in the areas in which they are operating”.

It says that the adoption of LNG for ferries and other local users is “expected to grow in the future so demand will increase, and it is hoped this will create a critical mass that will lead to investment in storage facilities in Scotland to improve overall supply and encourage other users to adopt the fuel”.

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It goes on: “In the meantime, LNG will be transported by road, and while not ideal, when weighed up by the future environmental benefits, is considered necessary to promote the use of LNG in Scotland.”

But four new vessels being built to support CalMac’s ageing ferry network being built in Turkey will be diesel/electric hybrid propulsion vessels – not LNG.

It means the LNG infrastructure plans will presently be for just two vessels – and there have been persistent doubts over their future as they remain incomplete after over five years of delay at the nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard in Inverclyde.

While there has been criticism over what has been described by some as an LNG planning ‘farce’, CalMac has begun moves to use Troon rather than Ardrossan for services to and from Arran from the summer of 2023. Because of the storage tank issues, the LNG will be pumped from trucks to the ship there.

CalMac admit in its customer messaging that truck-to-ship bunkering is “not considered a sustainable solution” which will meet the long-term demands of the new ships.

They say the typical transfer rate is too slow – typically between two and two-and-a-half hours for 20 tonnes. When the delayed fixed tank is in operation, the time will drop to between 45 and 60 minutes.  

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A full tanker of Marine Gas Oil is approximately 28 tonnes and can be transferred in about 45 minutes.

The ferry operator said if tankers are required to meet the vessel during the timetabled port calls, there would be a “risk of delay caused if problems were encountered during transit”.

In the wake of the LNG issues, naval architect Euan Haig – who throughout his career was responsible for the successful delivery of multiple Ministry of Defence contracts worth many hundreds of millions of pounds – said he believed the decision to use LNG was “nothing more than gesture politics, but it was a very expensive gesture”.

He added: “The entire project was fundamentally miscast from its very beginning.

“I am not an expert on infrastructure such as LNG terminals. However they are not rocket science and the decade since the [ferries] project was approved should have been plenty of time to design and build what they need.

“Maybe sense has dawned and the high cost and low benefit of LNG and these facilities has prompted their cancellation  But I speculate.”

And Professor Alf Baird, former director of the Maritime Research Group at Napier University and former member of the defunct Ferry Industry Advisory Group set up to inform ministers over the way forward for ferry services added: “CMAL have maybe now, belatedly, realised they never needed LNG storage facilities. Shoreside infrastructure is clearly not necessary for bunkering of LNG or diesel as both are generally transferred directly to a ferry from road tankers or, in the case of the bigger ports and much bigger ferries, from small dedicated bunker tankers/ships.

“It sounds like the CMAL plan was to spend more than necessary on port infrastructure, the same as they do on ships.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “The use of LNG on the ferries will undoubtedly improve air quality emissions in the areas in which they are operating. While LNG is not a long-term alternative to marine gasoil (MGO) for ferries, it is a proven technology that offers around 20% less carbon emissions than MGO.”

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