Pollution-choked India buying dirty U.S. oil byproduct

ByThe Associated Press

NEW DELHI — U.S. oil refineries that are unable to sell a dirty fuel waste product at home are exporting vast quantities of it to India instead.

Petroleum coke, the bottom-of-the-barrel leftover from refining Canadian tar sands crude and other heavy oils, is cheaper and burns hotter than coal. But it also contains more planet-warming carbon and far more heart- and lung-damaging sulfur — a key reason few American companies use it.

Refineries instead are sending it around the world, especially to energy-hungry India, which last year got almost a fourth of all the fuel-grade “petcoke” the U.S. shipped out, an Associated Press investigation found. In 2016, the U.S. sent more than 8 million metric tons of petcoke to India. That’s about 20 times more than in 2010, and enough to fill the Empire State Building eight times.

The petcoke being burned in countless factories and plants is contributing to dangerously filthy air in India, which already has many of the world’s most polluted cities.

Delhi resident Satye Bir does not know all the reasons Delhi’s air is so dirty, but he says he feels both fury and resignation.

“My life is finished….My lungs are finished,” said the 63-year-old Bir, wheezing as he pulls an asthma inhaler out of his pocket. “This is how I survive. Otherwise, I can’t breathe.”

Laboratory tests on imported petcoke used near New Delhi found it contained 17 times more sulfur than the limit set for coal, and a staggering 1,380 times more than for diesel, according to India’s court-appointed Environmental Pollution Control Authority. India’s own petcoke, produced domestically, adds to the pollution.

Industry officials say petcoke has been an important and valuable fuel for decades, and its use recycles a waste product. Health and environmental advocates, though, say the U.S. is simply exporting an environmental problem. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and exporter of petcoke, federal and international data show.

“We should not become the dust bin of the rest of the world,” said Sunita Narain, a member of the pollution authority who also heads the Delhi-based Center for Science and the Environment. “We certainly can’t afford it; we’re choking to death already.”

EMBRACING

TAR SANDS

For more than a century, oil refining has served as a lifeline in America’s industrial heartland, where thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent decades.

In gritty northwest Indiana, a sprawling oil refinery and steel mills dominate the Lake Michigan shoreline. Freight trains chug through working-class neighborhoods. And smokestacks and distillation towers still symbolize opportunity.

Local officials and workers cheered when the BP Whiting refinery invested $4.2 billion so it could process crude extracted from tar sands in the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada.

U.S. refineries embraced tar sands oil and other heavy crudes, when domestic oil production was stagnant before the hydraulic fracturing boom. Some of the biggest built expensive units called cokers to process the gunky crude into gasoline, diesel, ship fuel and asphalt, which leaves huge amounts of petroleum coke as waste. When BP Whiting’s coker in Whiting, Indiana was finished in 2013, its petcoke output tripled, to 2.2 million tons a year.

Petcoke traditionally was used in the U.S. to make aluminum and steel after its impurities were removed. But when those mills closed or moved to other countries, the need for petcoke waned, although some power plants still use it. Other industries that had burned petcoke in the past did not want to invest in costly upgrades to control emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, so they shifted to cleaner natural gas.

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a petroleum industry trade group, released a statement to the AP saying that cokers “allow the United States to export petroleum coke to more than 30 countries to meet growing market demand.”

“Petroleum coke is used globally as a cost-effective fuel, as well as an integral component in manufacturing,” AFPM said.

But experts say it’s not market forces that are driving U.S. refiners to make this waste product from heavy oil refining. The refineries just need to get rid of it, and are willing to discount it steeply — or even take a loss — which helps drive the demand in developing countries, experts said.

“It’s a commodity that defies explanation (because) there’s not a financial market,” said Stuart Ehrenreich, an oil industry analyst who once managed petcoke export terminals for Koch Industries. “But at the end of the day, the coke has got to move.”

So it’s usually priced cheaper than even coal, sold around the world through a network of businesses — from boat captains and stevedores to buyers, brokers and middlemen — and sent on an epic, weeks-long journey by rail, barge and ship.

There are fewer than a dozen big traders globally. Among the largest are Oxbow Energy Solutions and Koch Carbon, both led by members of the politically conservative and climate-skeptical Koch family. Neither they nor a dozen U.S. oil companies and traders contacted by the AP would talk about petcoke. They cited past controversies over the mountains of the waste stored at Midwest refineries, or said they wanted to avoid angering business partners.

In India, no factory managers would allow AP access, and federal officials did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

With the petcoke market volatile and competitive, industry holds information close, hoping to maintain an edge and make a profit.

“It’s like the Wild West,” said Ehrenreich.

DIRTY AIR

Petcoke, critics say, is making a bad situation worse across India. About 1.1 million Indians die prematurely as a result of outdoor air pollution every year, according to the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry.

In the capital of New Delhi, pollution has sharply increased over the past decade with more cars, a construction boom, seasonal crop burning and small factories on the outskirts that burn dirty fossil fuels with little oversight. In October and November, for the second year in a row, city air pollution levels were so high they couldn’t be measured by the city’s monitoring equipment. People wore masks to venture out into gray air, and newspaper headlines warned of an “Airpocalypse.”

“Fifty percent of children in Delhi have abnormalities in their lung function — asthma, bronchitis, a recurring spasmodic cough. That’s 2.2 million children, just in Delhi,” said Dr. Sai Kiran Chaudhuri, head of the pulmonary department at the Delhi Heart & Lung Institute.

The country has seen a dramatic increase in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions in recent years, concentrated in areas where power plants and steel factories are clustered. Those pollutants are converted into microscopic particles that lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing breathing and heart problems.

It’s impossible to gauge precisely how much is from petcoke versus coal, fuel oil, vehicles and other sources. But experts say it certainly is contributing.

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