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Keystone Pipeline Adversaries Hope It Wilts Under Pressure, Now Petcoke Is The Problem

With President Obama set to announce climate change as a top priority for his second term, the stage is set for considering the Keystone XL Pipeline squarely within a global warming context, and a new report commissioned by the group Oil Change International certainly won’t provide much comfort to pipeline advocates.

The Keystone project has already taken on a serious amount of baggage because it will add new “dirty” tar sands oil from Canada to a global fossil fuel mix that has already been linked to increased droughts, floods and destructive weather events. The new report adds fuel to the fire by pointing out that previous analyses have generally left a key element out of the Keystone equation, and that is the increased production of another “dirty” fuel, petroleum coke or petcoke as a byproduct of tar sands oil refining.

new report on petcoke adds to keystone xl pipeline controversyPetroleum Coke and Tar Sands Oil

Petroleum coke is a rocklike substance similar to coal, though according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (USEIA), petcoke generally has a higher sulfur content than coal.

The heavier the crude oil, the more petcoke is produced during the refining process, and Oil Change International notes that “there is 24 percent more CO2 embedded in a barrel of tar sands bitumen than in a barrel of light oil.”

The new report, called “Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands,” basically points out that increased petcoke production threatens to undermine the progress that the U.S. has made in managing its domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. already produces plenty of petcoke on its own account, and the Keystone XL pipeline would result in additional quantities. The pipeline is designed to convey tar sands oil from Canada down through the American Midwest to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

According to the report, additional petcoke production linked to Canadian tar sands refining would be enough to supply five typical coal-fired power plants. If the carbon dioxide from that activity was factored into the Keystone XL Pipeline, the result would boost global warming emissions related to the pipeline by 13 percent above the amount already calculated by the State Department.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In a global context, the petcoke factor sure takes a lot of steam out of public support for U.S. clean energy investments. After all, what’s the point of spending all that money and effort to cut global warming emissions here, while facilitating their increase in other countries?

Potentially, the burden of responsibility for additional petcoke production could be shifted by building more refineries in the country of origin (namely, Canada), but unless something changes a major transportation route to overseas markets would still depend on U.S. railways, and petcoke dust emissions related to railway transport have already been raising red flags.

Exporting Global Warming Emissions

Since the use of coal-fired power plants has been decreasing in the U.S., it’s safe to assume that the bulk fo the additional petcoke produced by Gulf Coast refineries from Canadian tar sands oil will make its way into the export market.

Even without Canadian tar sands oil, the petcoke export issue has already been throwing a monkey wrench into President Obama’s climate policy. USEIA notes that petcoke is one of the primary reasons why the U.S. finally became a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011, for the first time in over 60 years.

According to USEIA, petcoke exports also rose last year, achieving their highest-ever volume for the January-February period at a rate of about 470,000 barrels per day. The increase was spurred primarily by demand in Asia, for power plants, steel production and cement manufacturing.

In other words, aside from global climate change issues, petcoke exports also come back to haunt the U.S. in the form of smog from China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Follow the Money

The Natural Resources Defense Council has a good rundown of the report, but if you don’t have time to read the whole thing it’s worth checking out Oil Change International’s summary, which includes an additional tidbit of information for those of us who have been following the involvement of the Koch brothers in fossil fuel promotion and climate change denial.

According to Oil Change International, the Koch brothers’ Oxbow Corporation is the largest petcoke trader in the world (for more details you can also take a look at an article on the Koch brothers petcoke and lobbying activities at

Image: Pipeline by Valerie Everett

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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