December 4th, 2013 by Don Lieber
This is part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow for the next part, which will focus on sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
4. Petroleum Coke (Pet Coke)
Fossil Fuel Source: Oil
Pet coke is a rapidly expanding byproduct of the massive bitumen processing (tar sands oil) and refining currently underway in Alberta, Canada. Pet coke heavy dust resembles coal. It contains dozens of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals, including chromium, vanadium, sulfur, and selenium. Reflective of the general apathy in government and the fossil fuel industry about public study, and awareness, of potentially dangerous chemicals used in their drilling, there appears to be little published about the health risks of this growing tar sands waste product. Chris Weisener, a researcher at the University of Windsor, explained: “there is not much information about pet coke available, so its effects are not conclusively known.”
Is it, therefore, dangerous to breathe? to drink? to enter our soil and rivers?
“From the air perspective, as long as it’s not being burned, the only concern would be fugitive dust,” said Chris Ethridge of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. (As if “fugitive dust,” floating freely in the air, laced with petro-toxins, would be harmless.)
Mr. Ethridge’s comments reflect those of the industry, which would rather not discuss in much detail the actual end-use: Pet Coke is burned. Due to the rapid expansion of tar sands mining in Alberta, Pet Coke is now being exported in record quantities to Asia, where it is burned, instead of coal, in power plants.
From January 2011 to September 2012, the United States exported over 8.6 million tons of pet coke to China. The largest pet coke trader in the world is Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch — brother of known fossil fuel industrialists David and Charles Koch.
The problem? Pet coke is an egregious contributor to global climate change. When burned, it emits even 5 to 10 percent more CO2 than coal.
These climate implications are hidden from the public. The industry classifies it as a “refinery byproduct,” which allows it to be excluded from most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands oil production. Many people, like Mr. Ethridge, have not focused on its end-use.
Meanwhile, the waste stream from tar sands oil development in Alberta has increased exponentially since large-scale development began in the early 2000s, and it is no longer confined to the remote Canadian hinterland.
Concern is rising in both cities: many residents are now reporting diverse health complaints.
Large public protests have occurred in both cities (video here) and, this week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cautioned all city residents to call the police (311) if they “see any pet coke blowing off the piles.” The Chicago health department is now considering new pet coke regulations (none currently exist) and there are growing calls to ban it outright from city limits. Several lawsuits have been filed, including one against the Koch brothers (the largest exporters of pet coke in the US), who are accused of illegal pet coke storage.
Nevertheless, corporations are investing heavily in expanding tar sands oil development. One refinery alone — BP’s Whiting refinery in Indiana — is now undergoing a $4 billion expansion specifically to accommodate increased tar sands production in Alberta. The implications for pet coke are dramatic: the Whiting plant alone will now produce about 2 million tons of pet coke annually — a 100% increase from previous year’s pet coke production at that plant. Thus, with little media attention, pet coke is becoming a “profitable” fossil fuel product in its own right.
It even has its own industry support group — indeed, the 13th annual “Petcoke Conference” is being held in San Diego in February 2014, hosted by “The Jacobs Group” — one of the leading “pet coke service industries.”
While ignoring the carbon-saturated climate implications, The Jacobs Group promotes pet coke on it’s website (screenshot below) as an exciting, new fossil fuel source in a time of transition. “Amid accelerating change, standing still is not an option.”
Note From The Author
There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.
History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.
In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.
Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.
It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.
The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.
This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.
New York City
Stay tuned for the remaining 3 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries.
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