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Chicago Nurses Vs. Koch Petcoke As Exports Climb

Holy axis of evil, Batman! A dramatic fossil fuel threefer is brewing in Chicago, as mountains of the carbon-saturated fuel petcoke have been piling up in the city at the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX, and the main source of the petcoke happens to be BP. That’s the Gulf oil spill BP for those of you keeping score at home.

Public health issues related to the dust from the piles have drawn the attention of the labor union National Nurses United. Union members toured the piles on earlier this week and on Saturday May 17 they will join environmental organizations in a protest at the main source of the petcoke piles, a BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

US petcoke exports

US petcoke exports courtesy of US EIA.

Petcoke And Tar Sands Oil

The rumble in Chicago has been taking place as both US petcoke production and petcoke exports from the US are continuing a steady climb since the 1980’s.

As for why the US is producing more petcoke, the math is pretty simple. Petcoke is a byproduct of crude oil refining. The heavier the crude, the more petcoke is produced, which brings up the especially heavy tar sands oil. Keystone XL pipeline or not, more tar sands oil is being processed at US refineries.

Meanwhile the demand for petcoke in the US has been relatively flat, creating a massive bottleneck in the tar sands oil market. Fortunately, the export market for petcoke has taken up the slack, specifically in Asia.

The Koch Petcoke Problem

We first took note of the Koch petcoke problem back in January 2013, when a report commissioned by the group Oil Change International outlined how tar sands oil contributes to petcoke production.

More to the point, the report points out that another Koch-related company, Oxbow, is the largest petcoke trader in the world (more on that below).

It has also recently come to light that Koch has major holdings in tar sands fields in Canada, part of a long term investment in Canadian heavy oils that apparently has a 50-year history.

The increased production of petcoke poses a huge problem for climate change management, since petcoke has an even higher carbon content than coal.

The dust problem piles a local hazard onto the global warming issue. Aside from the dust problem posed by storing petcoke in the open, petcoke dust emissions from open rail cars is also an issue.

Wind Power And Petcoke Power

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Two Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been in the limelight for the past couple of years, but there is a third brother, William, who doesn’t get that much attention.


A rare exception occurred back in 2012, in relation to the aforementioned petcoke-dealing Oxbow. Here’s a snip from a article detailing the dustup:

William Koch – the “other” Koch brother along with David and Charles – was recently sued by a former senior executive at his Oxbow Carbon & Minerals Inc. for false imprisonment.  The allegations are that Koch lured the former executive to his Colorado ranch and then held him against his will to intimidate him.  The executive was allegedly being pressured not to go public with concerns over an illegal tax avoidance scheme being pursued by Oxbow.

We bring that up because William has been the major funder behind efforts to block the new Cape Wind offshore wind farm off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where William happens to own property. NIMBY, much?

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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