Detroit Petcoke Waste Shows the Consequences of Tar Sands Processing

A black mound of solid waste is piling up in Detroit, making visualizing the environmental impact of the Canadian tar sands boom a little easier for everyone.

The waste, which is carbon-rich petroleum coke, is a direct result of the Albertan tar sands. Ian Austen writes in the New York Times, that the "three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block on the…side of the Detroit River" is the "long overlooked byproduct of Canada's oil sands boom."

The coke is waste from a refinery down the river, owned by Marathon Petroleum, which started processing exported Canadian oil from the tar sands as recently as November. The plant refines 28,000 barrels of bitumen crude a day from the tar sands. Already, the results are showing. But even this mountain of what is essentially sulphur and carbon-infused industrial refuse is less a concern than another way to make money for some. The petroleum coke is bought and owned by Koch Carbon.

Koch Carbon is run by brothers Charles and David Koch, industrialists who back "activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change." Their company sells the coke as cheap fuel, usually overseas, where it releases more pollution into the atmosphere.

Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a byproduct of coking, a refining process that releases oil from thick bitumen crude from the tar sands. Canada reportedly has 78.9 million tons stockpiled, some "dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta." As the Detroit stockpile demonstrates, the petcoke travels further afield as well.

Austen observes that "Detroit's pile will not be the only one," since the Harper government is putting all its support behind expanding the tar sands oil industry via exports to the US. Part of this push is its championing of the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.

If Keystone XL is approved by the Obama administration, even more petcoke will be produced by refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, which will receive diluted bitumen straight from the tar sands via the pipeline. These refineries will probably ship it to Mexico and China as fuel. There is also a high demand for petcoke in India, where it's used as fuel for cement-making kilns. Petcoke is used as an alternative to low-grade coal.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not allow the burning of petcoke in the US.

Austen quotes Tony McCallum, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), as insisting that most Canadian oil exports to the US Gulf Coast will "replace declining heavy oil imports from Mexico and Venezuela that produces the same amount of petcoke, so it doesn't create a new issue."


A study on petcoke by Lorne Stockman for environmental group Oil Change International reports that "a ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal."

Stockman also mentions that 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." This will boost the coal-fired power industry while also making it cheaper and more polluting. Emissions from petcoke byproducts have been excluded from the US State Department's emissions estimates for Keystone XL. Taking petcoke into account, Stockman notes, would raise annual Keystone XL emissions "13% above the State Department's calculations."

Because petcoke is in high demand in other countries as well, this excess waste will also help raise CO2 emissions globally. The Detroit stockpile is one more reminder that Canada's plans for the tar sands are looking more short-sighted by the day.

Image Credit: Oil Change International report Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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