Environmentally Safe Lubricants Help Operators Stay Ahead Of Regulations

As all marine operators know, environmental regulations affecting the marine industry have ratcheted up over the past several years. “When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed one word in the Vessel General Permit (VGP), the world of environmentally-friendly lubricants changed completely,” said Phil Cumberlidge, green marine business development manager with Panolin, a global maker of environmentally friendly lubricants.

“The word that changed was ‘should’ [in the first 2008 VGP] to ‘must,’” he said. “In the 2013 VGP that came into effect in December 2013, vessel owners now ‘must’ use environmentally acceptable lubricants (EALs) in their vessel oil-to-seawater interfaces when entering U.S. waters. That means wherever lubricants are retained by seal, as they are in propulsion, steering and stability systems and in deck machinery; or used in equipment that loses lubricant, such as open gears and wire ropes.”

The current version of the VGP took effect in 2013 and is set to expire in December. At the end of each five-year period, individual states are invited to add to the VGP regulations. The current VGP applies to commercial (non-military and non-recreational) vessels greater than 79 feet in length. For commercial vessels less than 79 feet long, the small vessel requirements (or sVGP) apply; these came into force in January 2018. The EPA is working on the next update of the VGP.

Panolin, based in Switzerland, has been serving the worldwide construction and marine markets for years with a variety of EALs. In the European market,  where environmental regulations are stricter than in the U.S., Panolin lubricants and other products are widely used in water-interfacing equipment such as hydro turbines and lock gates.

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In the U.S., too, Panolin EALs have been adopted by the Corps of Engineers for use in its locks and dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, both of which have been the focus of a number of lawsuits from environmental groups in recent years.

Brandon Richard, CEO of Panolin USA, said Panolin products have had their greatest success in the U.S. so far in the dredging market. Those dredging companies and inland towboat operators that use Panolin EALs, he said, take a longer view and want to get out ahead of changing environmental regulations. Because EALs are biodegradable, he said, they present less of a reporting headache even if they enter the water.

According to Cumberlidge, the transition to the stricter VGP caught many equipment manufacturers off guard. At the beginning of 2014, he said, equipment operators generally did not know which EALs they “must” use.

The base oils of lubricants accepted as being environmentally friendly are of four types, he said:

• triglycerides, commonly known as vegetable oils;

• polyalkylene glycols, shortened to polyglycols;

• polyalphaolefins, or synthetic hydrocarbons (man-made mineral oil); and

• synthetic esters, which come in two classes: fully saturated and

They have different properties and uses and serve different purposes.

Over the last two years, by talking with the EAL makers, original equipment makers have been getting the results from performance and compatibility testing with sealing materials and metal components in their systems.

They have also been helping customers understand the different EALs and are learning about performance issues with EALs in various conditions. Cumberlidge said those issues with some types of EALs can include:

• increasing oil viscosity due to poor thermal stability can cause  overheating;

• decreasing oil viscosity due to shear instability can lead to equipment failure;

• varnish and gumming of the system due to thermal degradation can reduce equipment efficiency;

• difficulty in the change-over from mineral oils because they can’t mix with it;

• in some instances, slime and bad smells in ships’ stern tubes due to water contamination and oxidation of the EALs, resulting in corrosion; and finally

• incompatibility of some EALs with some sealing materials, which can cause seal and even bearing failures.

All these issues can be addressed by picking the right product for the right use. “Contrary to popular myth,” said Cumberlidge, “it is not true that synthetic ester-based oils will necessarily turn into seal eating acid on contact with water. It depends on which ester is selected for the base oil.”

Cumberlidge says operators are sometimes put off by the higher cost per gallon of high-performance EALs relative to mineral oil-based products—but they shouldn’t be when they consider the extended life-cycle. Currently, he says, fully saturated synthetic esters are leading the way in reliable, high performance and long-life lubricants for waterways, coastal regions and open seas. Besides offering high performance, they are environmentally considerate and reduce the equipment’s carbon footprint. Documented monitoring of real-life uses of Panolin saturated synthetic esters shows that up to 10 times the life of mineral oils can be achieved, providing lower lubricant costs through the life cycle, he said.

Operators should talk with the EAL makers and ask them directly what base oil technology, or blends of oils they use, what references they have and if their lubricants have been replaced by other EALs. 

In addition to having the obvious approval from the original equipment makers whose equipment they are using, operators should, as the EPA recommends, ask the EAL makers what environmental certifications they have.