Tar Sands Coal Export Boom: Petcoke Exports Second Highest Ever in April

With many eyes honed in on the Powder River Basin coal export battle in the Northwest, another coal export boom is unfolding on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Although no coal production is actually taking place here, a filthy fuel with even more severe climate impacts than coal is leaving port bound for foreign power plants. 

Meet petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” what Oil Change International described in a Jan. 2013 report as “The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands.” 

Petcoke “is a byproduct of coking, a process that takes very heavy oil and produces gasoil (a precursor to diesel or vacuum gasoil) and naphtha,” Platts explains. “The coke is used as a fuel for power plant, in a kiln in the production of concrete or, for some specialty grades, in the production of aluminum or other metals.”

As relayed by Platts, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) is reporting the U.S. exported the second-highest amount of petroleum coke in U.S. history in AprilEIA's April data show export levels of 17.78 million barrels, second only to Dec. 2011's 20.44 million barrels of petcoke.   

With the tar sands' expansion has come an accompanying petcoke export boom of historical proportion.

“The US exported a record 184.17 million barrels of petroleum coke in 2012, a record up over 20 million barrels compared to 2010,” Platts explained. 

According to the EIA report, China is the current top beneficiary of the U.S. petcoke export boom, importing 3.20 million barrels of petcoke in April, the third most it's ever imported from the U.S.

China imported 4.93 million barrels of petcoke from the U.S. in Dec. 2011 and another 3.64 million barrels in Jan. 2013.

Climate Costs of Petcoke: Worse Than Coal

Petcoke, put bluntly, is dirtier than King Coal. 

“Petcoke is over 90 percent carbon and emits 5 to 10 percent more CO2 than coal on a per-unit of energy basis when it is burned,” explains Oil Change International's report. “As petcoke has high energy content, every ton of petcoke emits between 30 and 80 percent more CO2 than coal, depending on the quality of the coal.”

Making matters worse, refineries nationwide have the capacity to manufacture petcoke, which could fuel a new global coal power plant boom. 

“Of 134 operating U.S. refineries in 2012, 59 are equipped to produce petcoke including many of the largest refineries in the country,” wrote Oil Change International. “The proven tar sands reserves of Canada will yield roughly 5 billion tons of petcoke – enough to fully fuel 111 U.S. coal plants to 2050.”

The Keystone XL Connection

If Keystone XL is built to full capacity, it “would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year,” according to Oil Change International's report. 

While Keystone XL is a tar sands crude export pipeline, it would also boost petcoke exports. Many petcoke refineries sit on the Gulf Coast, where the petcoke would then be exported to the global market. 

“Nine of the refineries close to the southern terminus of Keystone XL have nearly 30 percent of U.S. petcoke production capacity, over 50,000 tons a day,” the report continues. 

Image Credit: Oil Change International

As the recent EIA report makes clear, the petcoke production boom and its accompanying petcoke export boom are the new elephant in the room in the debate over tar sands production, marketing, and most specifically, Keystone XL.

“Petcoke is a seldom discussed yet highly important aspect of the full impacts of tar sands production,” wrote Oil Change International. “Factored into the equation, petcoke puts another strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.”

Image Credit: Oil Change International


I made the following comment on a Dot Earth post a while back. The topic was the IEA Energy Outlook report of June 2013. It got me thinking about the amount of petcoke that would be generated should Alberta operate at full scale of around 3 million barrels per day. The volume comparison at the end is silly, but what the hey.


Sorry about the second post, but (there's always a but) here's some fun with numbers - since Obama, Goldman Sachs and others are sealing our fate of the XL Pipeline:

- 3,000,000 barrels per day of bitumen is expected by 2020
- Bitumen has a density of 1,000 kg/m3
- Bitumen produces about 15 to 30 percent (weight or mole fraction?) petroleum coke per barrel - I'll assume 20 percent
- Because I'm a patriotic American, I”ll use real units now - so the amount of bitumen flowing out of Alberta is 786,000,000 pounds per day based on 3,000,000 brls/day at a 262 pounds/barrel density
- Petroleum coke after being drilled out of the Coker has a bulk density of around 50 pounds/cubic foot.
- That's 16,000,000 ft3 of petcoke per day is piling up.

Central Park in New York City is 1.3 square miles in area (or 39,029,760 square feet)

- Each day about 0.4 feet of petroleum coke will pile up an area of Central Park each day. Thats about 150 feet of Petcoke reaching the sky in Central Park each year. The Trump International Hotel and Tower, Central Park West is about 600 feet tall. So each year we'll be generating 0.25 (or a quarter) of a Trump-Central Park in volume. That's an SI registered value for volume btw.

So what is the point? We can tie the carbon economy with the pleasure of public parks into staging areas - less trees of course.

I invite nerds to check the numbers.