Petroleum Coke: the Pollution Doesn't Stop at the Refinery

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Watching the petcoke mountains spring up along the Calumet River in Chicago, I find myself marveling at the polluting reach of the tar sands industry.

Increased production of the most carbon-intensive petroleum on the planet is having profound impacts on natural landscapes and the people who are deeply connected to them, as well as the refining sector. Wilderness habitat in Canada and the U.S. is being torn apart by extraction and transport of tar sands. Refineries must undergo massive expansions to process this heavier, dirtier crude – enabling refining processes that require more energy and produce more air and water pollution than refining lighter crudes.

But the impacts don’t end there. The mounds of refining waste in my home city represent often over-looked aspects of the tar sands problem: threats to the health of local communities, as well as increasing climate and other pollution from the global electrical utility sector.

Petroleum coke is a waste product of oil refining; refining tar sands, in turn, produces significantly more pet coke than refining lighter crudes. For example, the pet coke production at BP’s Whiting Refinery, which is undergoing a nearly $4 billion expansion to enable tar sands refining, will go from about 700,000 tons per year to over 2 million annually. All of this waste has to go somewhere – and that somewhere is in communities throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, en route to dirty power plants in the U.S. and overseas.

The piles along the Calumet, like those highlighted earlier this year in Detroit, are only steps from residential neighborhoods and public parks. These communities have long been burdened by industrial pollution, but in recent years have had high hopes for a healthier future as steel mills relocated and the demand for coal in the city subsided. But the new influx of vast quantities of petroleum coke threatens that vision, sending billowing clouds of black dust into homes and gardens on windy days.

This dust goes by another name in air quality circles – particulate matter, or PM. It’s so bad for human health that EPA has set several national air quality standards for PM, based on the following list of impacts, among others: aggravated asthma, premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, and decreased lung function. Not surprisingly, the Chicago neighborhoods playing unintentional host to the pet coke mountains register some of the worst PM levels in the city. Pet coke dust also contains heavy metals like nickel, vanadium and selenium, as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are associated with cancer and a whole range of other health impacts.

Once the petroleum coke leaves these storage piles, it is sent by water, rail and truck to end users – in most cases power plants. As a fuel for producing power, pet coke is cheap and dirty, with high levels of sulfur in addition to heavy metals. When the fuel is burned, the sulfur in pet coke can contribute to acid rain, while the heavy metals can be dispersed far afield. These characteristics mean that plants burning pet coke must have very stringent controls. Unfortunately, many of the older plants looking to burn pet coke lack such modern pollution control equipment.  

From a climate change perspective, burning petroleum coke results in more CO2 than most forms of coal. Moreover, pet coke is often burned in a type of boiler that produces significant nitrous oxide, or N2O – a highly potent climate pollutant with over 300 times the warming potential of CO2. All told, burning pet coke in these power plants can be worse for global warming than burning coal.

Some of the dirty power plants burning petroleum coke are located right here in the Midwest. Detroit Edison’s massive Monroe plant, infamous as one of the nation’s dirtiest, has been experimenting with petcoke from the Chicago area. And FirstEnergy’s Bayshore plant, known by some as the Bass-o-Matic for its horrific impact on one of the nation’s most important fisheries, has been taking petcoke from the neighboring BP/Husky refinery. Overseas, petroleum coke is a popular fuel, with exports from the U.S. going in large quantities to China, Brazil, Mexico, and Europe.  

Following this chain shows that when we make choices about using oil and where to get it, our decisions have far-reaching ramifications for our health and the health of our planet, including ones very close to home. Think about it the next time you fuel up.