While U.S. power plants have considered petroleum coke or “petcoke” to be too dirty to burn, India, on the other hand, has been importing this coal by-product of tar sands refining for years. However, it may be seeing its last days in the country which has served as its biggest importer.
In the aftermath of an Associated Press investigation published on December 1, India's Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has said the country is formulating plans to phase out petcoke imports. The AP investigation, filed from New Delhi, revealed that citizens who live near petcoke refining facilities have come down with a range of air pollution-related illnesses in recent months and years.
The AP also points out that among the largest exporters of U.S. petcoke are Koch Industries subsidiary Koch Carbon and Oxbow Carbon, the latter of which is owned by the twin brother of David Koch, Bill Koch. The advocacy group Oil Change International referred to petcoke as “the coal hiding in the tar sands” in a 2013 report documenting the carbon footprint of petcoke production and combustion.
“In 2016, the U.S. sent more than 8 million metric tons of petcoke to India. That’s about 20 times more than in 2010, and enough to fill the Empire State Building eight times,” AP reported. “Laboratory tests on imported petcoke used near New Delhi found it contained 17 times more sulfur than the limit set for coal, and a staggering 1,380 times more than for diesel, according to India’s court-appointed Environmental Pollution Control Authority.”
Petcoke has come under fire in the U.S. in past years in both Chicago and Detroit, where it was stored in open-air stockpiles along Midwest rivers. The dust from those petcoke piles, as chronicled in a short documentary produced by Vice News (full disclosure: I advised the film and wrote a companion piece for it), became a major air quality issue on the southside of Chicago because it often blew from the riverside to citizens' backyards.
The blowing petcoke dust in the Windy City, placed alongside the Calumet River by Koch Carbon and other companies, led to numerous class action lawsuits and was eventually ordered to be placed in enclosed shelters by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Responding to Emanuel's order, Koch Carbon announced it would no longer situate its uncovered petcoke in the area.
But while petcoke may end up out of sight in Chicago, the high-carbon fossil fuel is still very apparent to India's citizens, governmental officials, and legal system, as the AP has documented.
Petcoke Emits More CO2 Than Coal
In addition, burning petcoke in power plants in India is also playing a role in contributing to human-caused climate change.
“On a per-unit of energy basis petcoke emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal,” Oil Change International explains in its 2013 report. “A ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal.”
Oil Change International also details that, as of 2013, Bill Koch's Oxbow Carbon was shipping “about 11 million tons of petcoke annually around the world.” While Koch and Oxbow did not respond to a request for comment for AP's story, a trade association of which Koch Industries is a member — American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) — did respond and made its case in favor of petcoke.
Petcoke refineries “allow the United States to export petroleum coke to more than 30 countries to meet growing market demand,” remarked AFPM. “Petroleum coke is used globally as a cost-effective fuel, as well as an integral component in manufacturing,”
Koch Industries is among the biggest current funders of climate change denial and also a major contributor to the Republican Party through Super PACs and its lobbying and advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity.
The greater Chicago area, for its part, still serves as a major producer of petcoke at a refinery owned by BP located in Whiting, Indiana.
Will India Ban Petcoke?
Petcoke's future is still being contested in India's legal system.
Next week, the Indian Supreme Court will hear arguments about the role of petcoke in the country. On November 17, the court ruled that the country should shift toward a phase-out and eventual ban of the refinery by-product. And on October 24, it approved a regional ban on petcoke combustion in the National Capital Region (NCR) around New Delhi, which applies to the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan.
“NCR air pollution is at public health emergency levels and requires drastic action,” wrote the court in a November 9 report. “This level of pollution is hazardous to human beings, as stated in the government’s own health advisory … The ban on the most polluting fuels, pet coke and furnace oil in NCR, is one such drastic action needed in this pollution hotspot.”
If India does fully ban or put a damper on petcoke production, the industry still appears to have an open door in countries such as Brazil, Japan, China, and Mexico, all of which are the next biggest consumers of petcoke behind India, according to data published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Petcoke, then, may be on its way out of India. But it's not going away anytime soon.
“It’s a classic case of environmental dumping,” Lorne Stockman, research director at Oil Change International, told the AP. “They need to get rid of it, so it’s dumped into a poor, developing country.”
Main image: Aircrews photograph possible signs of pollution from Hurricane Rita at the Oxbow Calcining facility and Port Arthur Steam Energy plant on Sabine Lake along the Texas-Louisiana border. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung, public domain