When the huge black mounds that sit on the riverbanks of southwest Detroit just appeared one day, residents were puzzled and concerned.
“One of the biggest concerns when we saw the black piles is what is it, and where is it coming from?” said State Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). She said residents contacted her worried that the black piles could be toxic.
U.S. Reps. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Bloomfield Township, and John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit, sent a joint letter to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality urging the agency to consider the material's potential impact on the river and nearby residents.
"We fear the storage of petroleum coke along the river poses a potential threat to water and air quality. The material may contain trace amounts of metal and could have damaging health impacts if fugitive dust enters the air. Petroleum coke that enters the water may continue to frustrate efforts to prevent contamination from runoff," according to the letter.
“What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground,” said Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan state representative for that part of Detroit. “Nobody knew this was going to happen.” Almost 56 percent of Canada’s oil production is from the petroleum-soaked oil sands of northern Alberta, more than 2,000 miles north.
An initial refining process known as coking, which releases the oil from the tarlike bitumen in the oil sands, also leaves the petroleum coke, of which Canada has 79.8 million tons stockpiled. Some is dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta. Much is just piled up there.
Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.
Marathon Petroleum’s plant in Detroit processes 28,000 barrels a day of the oil sands bitumen.
Residents on both sides of the Detroit River are concerned that the coke mountain is both an environmental threat and an eyesore.
“Here’s a little bit of Alberta,” said Brian Masse, one of Windsor’s Parliament members. “For those that thought they were immune from the oil sands and the consequences of them, we’re now seeing up front and center that we’re not.”
Petcoke is a seldom discussed yet highly important aspect of the full impacts of tar sands production.
From a recent report titled "Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands," written by Lorne Stockman for the environmental group Oil Change International:
Petcoke is like coal, but dirtier. Petcoke looks and acts like coal, but it has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal.
On a per-unit of energy basis petcoke emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal.
A ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal.
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.
Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands or conventional oil production and consumption. Thus the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted.
Petcoke in the tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories.
There is 24 percent more CO2 embedded in a barrel of tar sands bitumen than in a barrel of light oil.
15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen can end up as petcoke, depending on the upgrading and refining process used.
Of 134 operating U.S. refineries in 2012, 59 are equipped to produce petcoke.
U.S. refineries produced over 61.5 million tons of petcoke in 2011 – enough to fuel 50 average U.S. coal plants each year.
In 2011, over 60 percent of U.S petcoke production was exported.
Keystone XL will fuel five coal plants and thus emit 13% more CO2 than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.
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 petcoke produced from the Keystone XL pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year.
These petcoke emissions have been excluded from State Department emissions estimates for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Including these emissions raises the total annual emissions of the pipeline by 13% above the State Department’s calculations.
Cheap petcoke helps the coal industry.
As a refinery byproduct, petcoke is “priced to move”, selling at roughly a 25 percent discount to conventional coal.
Rising petcoke production associated with tar sands and heavy oil production is helping to make coal fired power generation dirtier and cheaper – globally.
From January 2011 to September 2012, the United States exported over 8.6 million tons of petcoke to China, most of which was likely burnt in coal-fired power plants.
“PetKoch”: The largest global petcoke trader in the world is Florida based Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch – the brother of Charles and David Koch.
Oxbow Carbon has donated $4.25 million to GOP super PACs, making it the one of the largest corporate donors to super PACs.
Oxbow also spent over $1.3 million on lobbyists in 2012.
It's no wonder that the Koch brothers spend millions to fund groups that deny climate change.
Billionaire oilman David Koch used to joke that Koch Industries was "the biggest company you've never heard of." Now the shroud of secrecy has thankfully been lifted, revealing the $67 million that he and his brother Charles have quietly funneled to climate-denial front groups that are working to delay policies and regulations aimed at stopping global warming, most of which are part of the State Policy Network.
Today, the Kochs are being watched as a prime example of the corporate takeover of government. Their funding and co-opting of the Tea Party movement is now well documented.
Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch have a vested interest in delaying climate action: they've made billions from their ownership and control of Koch Industries, an oil corporation that is the second largest privately-held company in America (which also happens to have an especially poor environmental record). It's timely that more people are now aware of Charles and David Koch and just what they're up to. A growing awareness of these oil billionaires' destructive agenda has led to increased scrutiny and resistance from people and organizations all over the United States.
As for the leftover coke, the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA)doesn't allow new licenses that permit the burning of petcoke here in the U.S. However, overseas companies see it as an inexpensive alternative to low-grade coal. China uses it to generate electricity, adding to the air-quality problems that already exist. It's also in large demand in India and Latin America, where it is used mainly as fuel in cement-making kilns.
“I’m not making a value statement, but it comes down to emission controls,” D. Mark Routt, a staff energy consultant at KBC Advanced Technologies in Houston, said. “Other people don’t seem to have a problem, which is why it is going to Mexico, which is why it is going to China.”
One of the world’s largest dealers of petroleum coke is the Oxbow Corporation, owned by William I. Koch, a brother of David and Charles, which sells about 11 million tons of fuel-grade coke a year.
Detroit is not the only dumping ground for the pet coke, and more are on the way. BP, the British energy company, is building what it describes as the "second-largest coke refinery" in Whiting, Ind. When completed, the unit will be able to process about 102,000 barrels of bitumen or other heavy oils a day. Somewhere nearby will have to store the pet coke, and it will have to be much larger than three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block in Detroit.