Vessel General Permit

Mandatory use of ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ in US waters from December 2013

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA has published a new version of the Vessel General Permit (VGP), with effect from 19 December 2013. This mandates the use of ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ by any ‘vessel’ calling in the waters of the United States. For the Offshore industry, a VGP is required for MODUs (Mobile Offshore Drilling Units) such as semi-submersible drilling rigs and drill ships.

From this date, all ‘vessels’ in the ‘waters of the United States’ - in broad terms, anywhere within three miles of the US coast – must: (a) obtain a ‘Vessel General Permit’ (VGP) and (b) use ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ (EALs) in all oil-to-sea interfaces.


The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates, with the Vessel General Permit, discharges incidental to the normal operation of all commercial vessels calling in the waters of the United States. The EPA’s original VGP, issued in 2008, will expire on 19th December 2013 and the 2013 VGP will replace it. 

EPA now recognizes that the impact of lubricant discharges (not accidental spills) to the marine ecosystem is substantial. For all applications where lubricants are likely to enter the sea, the 2013 VGP mandates use of environmentally acceptable lubricant formulations, instead of mineral oils, as these lubricants can offer significantly reduced environmental impacts across all applications (EPA 2011c).


Most commercial marine vessels more than 79 feet in length, irrespective of when and where they were constructed. The EPA’s website1 gives more detail about what else is covered (e.g. in some circumstances, mobile drilling rigs or vessels under construction) and what is not (e.g. most vessels under 79 feet and vessels of the Armed Forces). 

Most commercial vessels under 79 feet will come under the EPA's small Vessel General Permit (sVGP -when issued).


Submit a Notice of Intent (NOI) to discharge to the EPA prior to entering US waters.

Generally this needs to be provided to the EPA at least seven days in advance for electronic NOI, and 30 days for paper NOI.

The VGP provides a copy of the NOI and further details about how it applies and submission deadlines. Once issued, permits will last five years, but annual reports must be provided to the EPA to demonstrate compliance.


EAL are defined by the EPA as lubricants that are “biodegradable”, “minimally toxic,” and “not bioaccumulative”. 
  • Biodegradable: How quickly is the chemical going to break down naturally in the sea?
  • Bioaccumulative: The potential for a chemical to accumulate in the fatty tissues of organisms and enter the food chain.
  • Toxic: The potential for a chemical to kill or harm marine life.
EPA definition of ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ includes products that are labelled under OSPAR, Blue Angel, European Ecolabel, Nordic Swan and Swedish Standard SS 1554702.

All vessels calling in US waters, irrespective of when they were constructed, must use an Environmentally Acceptable Lubricant in all oil-to-sea interfaces and two-stroke engines that generate wet exhaust, unless technically infeasible.


Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants must be used in controllable pitch propeller and thruster hydraulic

fluids and other oil-to-sea interfaces. These include lubrication discharges from paddle wheel propulsion, stern tubes, thruster bearings, stabilisers, rudder bearings, azimuth thrusters, propulsion pod lubrication, and wire rope and mechanical equipment subject to immersion.

Any equipment on the deck of a vessel which has contact with water when at sea is covered as well as lubricants used in two-stroke diesel inboard engines that generate wet exhaust (e.g. two-stroke diesel inboards).


“Technically infeasible” is defined in the permit as:
  • No EAL products are approved for use in a given application.
  • Products which come pre-lubricated (e.g. wire ropes lubricated for life during manufacture, with no EAL available during manufacture).
  • EALs meeting the manufacturers’ specifications are not available in any port at which the vessel calls.
  • Changeover and use of an EAL must wait until the vessel’s next dry-docking.
If a vessel owner/operator finds it is technically infeasible to use an Environmentally Acceptable Lubricant for their vessel, they must explain why they cannot do so in their record-keeping documentation. They must also note the use of a non-environmentally acceptable lubricant in the vessel’s Annual Report.


The EPA is relying on vessel operators to self-report EAL usage; vessels operators must keep records

onboard of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for all EALs used in oil-to-sea interfaces.

Operators must also document whether the EALs are registered under a labeling program (e.g. DfE, Blue Angel). If it is technically infeasible to use an EAL, recordkeeping must document the reason.

The Coast Guard will carry out spot checks of vessels to verify compliance. The range of action taken for non-compliance will start with written warnings and move up to fines (typically from $1,000-$25,000) depending on the severity and frequency of the non-compliance.


Castrol BioRange products are registered under OSPAR (Oslo and Paris Convention) and therefore meet the criteria for being ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ under the VGP. The Castrol BioRange includes Castrol BioStat, Castrol BioBar and Castrol BioTac OG.

Castrol BioStat Range are environmentally acceptable stern tube and thrusters lubricants whose esters are synthesised from renewable biological sources. They have reduced environmental impact when compared to conventional lubricants with demonstrable benefits in the following key environmental performance criteria:
  • Superior biodegradation3
  • Significantly reduced bioaccumulation4 and toxicity5
  • Enhanced renewability
The Castrol BioStat product range (68, 100, 150, 220 and 320 viscosities) are fully tested and registered according to OSPAR (Oslo and Paris Convention) requirements and approved by the Norwegian and UK regulators for use offshore. The range therefore meets the requirements for ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ under the 2013 US Vessel General Permit.

Castrol BioBar Range are environmentally acceptable hydraulic fluids whose esters are derived from naturally occurring plant oils. They have reduced environmental impact when compared to conventional lubricants with demonstrable benefits in the following key environmental performance criteria:
  • Superior biodegradation3
  • Significantly reduced bioaccumulation4 and toxicity5
  • Enhanced renewability
The Castrol BioBar product range (22, 32, 46, 68 and 100 viscosities) are fully tested and registered according to OSPAR (Oslo and Paris Convention) requirements and approved by the Norwegian and UK regulators for use offshore. The range therefore meets the requirements for ‘Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants’ under the 2013 US Vessel General Permit.

The Castrol BioTac OG is a lubricant specifically formulated for use on equipment that is expected to come into direct contact with the marine environment, such as the legs of a jack-up drilling rigs, anchor winches and other decking machinery. All components have been selected for their low environmental impact, while at the same time using performance characteristics of traditional lubricants. Other key characteristics include:
  • OSPAR compliant with no substitutable components
  • Highly resistant to water wash-off, giving excellent corrosion protection
  • High load-carrying performance


The Small Vessel General Permit (sVGP) is still currently under revision. It is likely that the sVGP will be issued in the summer of 2013, with its requirements coming into force on 19th December 2014.

The sVGP applies to all non-recreational, non-military vessels less than 79 feet in length operating in US waters (as defined above). However small vessels already permitted under the Vessel General Permit are not required to also be permitted under the small Vessel General Permit. For example lifeboats on a larger vessel would be permitted under the “mother vessel’s” VGP permit.

The sVGP specifies that vessels may not discharge oil, including oily mixtures, in quantities that may be harmful or cause a visible sheen. They may also not use any dispersants, cleaners, chemicals, or other materials or emulsifiers that would remove the appearance of a visible sheen.

The permit requires that, unless technically infeasible, vessels must use EALs in all machinery and equipment, including but not limited to stern tubes, wires, and two-stroke outboard motors, where discharges of oil to surrounding waters are likely to occur.


Seeing an iridescent sheen on the surface of water can be used to detect the presence of an oil spill. The term "oil" applies to both petroleum e.g. crude oil and non-petroleum oils e.g. vegetable oils. Although it is commonly referred to as the “sheen rule” the rule does not only apply to products that sheen.

The VGP does not authorise the discharge of an Environmentally Acceptable Lubricant in a quantity defined as harmful under the “sheen rule”.

Quantity that may be harmful means that it may not: (a) Violate applicable water quality standards; or

(b) Cause a film or sheen (an iridescent appearance on the surface of water) upon or discoloration of the surface of the water or adjoining shorelines or cause a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or upon adjoining shorelines.

The addition of dispersants or emulsifiers to oil to be discharged, to circumvent the conditions above, is prohibited. All of these types of discharges must be reported under the “sheen rule” to the National Response Centre or if not practicable the Coast Guard or EPA.

Due to their insolubility, the majority of base oils commonly used in lubricants have the potential to result in a film, sheen or discoloration of the surface of the water surface, or a sludge or emulsion, to be deposited beneath the surface of the water if they are released into the water.

Under normal operating conditions (e.g. minimal leakage from operating equipment) the use of a product that has the potential to sheen or leave a surface film is unlikely to result in an effect being observed. However, if a significant amount of lubricant is leaked into the sea resulting from machinery failure, then a sheen or film is likely to be observed, alerting the vessel operator to the equipment malfunction.

Choosing a lubricant that sheens provides a visual indication to a vessel operator that a discharge has occurred and therefore requires reporting. It also has the advantage of alerting them to the fact that a piece of equipment may have malfunctioned and require repair. It is therefore acceptable for lubricants that have potential to “sheen” to be used in applications that come under the VGP.

Lubricants that contain high molecular weight base oils that sink if spilled into water, may not leave a sheen or film on the waters’ surface. Due to their high molecular weight, however, they may be slow to biodegrade, therefore not meeting the definition of an EAL under the VGP.

Choosing a lubricant that does not sheen, but has the potential to create a film or discoloration on the water or a sludge or emulsion in the water, may leave the vessel operator open to charges of failure to report a spill should a discharge take place that is not reported as required.

For equipment where failure will not result in a significant spill of lubricant e.g. wire ropes, there is no benefit from selecting a product that sheens. In this case, a sheen on the waster surface will not alert the operator to a spill, therefore the use of a non-sheen product would be acceptable.


The full text of the permit along with an accompanying fact sheet is available from the EPA website The draft sVGP is also available on this website.
For any additional information please consult your local Castrol representative.
2. If products do not have one of the labels above, they will be classified as environmentally acceptable if meeting the criteria set by EPA for biodegradation, bioaccumulation, and toxicity:
  • To be classified as “biodegradable” a lubricant must contain at least 75% (w/w) of a constituent substance or constituent substances (only stated substances present above 0.10% shall be assessed) that each demonstrate either the removal of at least 70% of dissolved organic carbon, production of at least 60% of the theoretical carbon dioxide, or consumption of at least 60% of the theoretical oxygen demand within 28 days. Acceptable test methods to demonstrate biodegradability include: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Test Guidelines 301 A-F, 306 (marine), and 310, ASTM 5864, ASTM D-7373, OCSPP Harmonized Guideline 835.3110, and International Organization for Standardization 14593:1999. For lubricant formulations, the 10% (w/w) of the formulation that need not meet the above biodegradability requirements, up to 5% (w/w) may be non-biodegradable (but not bioaccumulative) while the remainder must be inherently biodegradable. For grease formulations, the 25% (w/w) of the formulation that need not meet the above biodegradability requirement, the constituent substances may be either inherently biodegradable or non-biodegradable, but may not be bioaccumulative. Acceptable test methods to demonstrate inherent biodegradability include: OECD Test Guidelines 302C (>70% biodegradation after 28 days) or OECD Test Guidelines 301 A-F (>20% but <60% biodegradation after 28 days).
  • “Not bioaccumulative” means the lubricant’s partition coefficient in the marine environment is log KOW <3 or >7 using test methods OECD 117 and 107 or it’s molecular mass > 800 Daltons.
  • “Minimally-toxic” means a substance must pass either acute (short term) or chronic (long term) toxicity tests. Acute tests must be carried out on 3 trophic levels and chronic on 2. Both marine and freshwater test methods are valid. Products can be assessed by either testing the fully formulated product and its main components or by testing each of the components in the formulation for their toxicity.
3. As measured in OECD 306 product level testing
4. Using OSPAR criteria for assessing bioaccumulation potential
5. As measured in ISO 10253 / ISO 14669