US oil firms produce large quantities of pet coke, which is expensive to store. Because of this, these companies are keen to sell their pet coke to energy-hungry developing nations, says JONATHAN LYONS. Pet coke is produced in the refining of extra-heavy oil sources, such as Canada’s oil sands. It is a by-product of crude oil refining and other so-called “cracking” processes. Cracking breaks down complex organic molecules into simpler, more valuable, lighter petroleum products.
Pet coke has economic value as a fuel source — a fuel source that has been embraced by the cement industry. It is generally used as an inexpensive alternative to coal for energy generation. While pet coke is used to provide carbon for the production of metals such as aluminum, steel, and titanium dioxide, most pet coke is used as a fuel source. The United States, where it is generally viewed as a waste product of refining processes, exports pet coke. In fact, it dominates the market for exporting pet coke. China, Japan, and India each import pet coke for use as a fuel source from the United States.
Canada also produces pet coke in its refining processes and exports it. The price of pet coke has been falling for several years now, and this trend continues; that economic incentive increases the allure of pet coke as a fuel source. The cement industry reaps the economic benefits of that trend, and this is particularly true of companies that use multi-fuel-source plants to produce cement. In fact, pet coke makes up 30-40 per cent of the fuel that drives cement manufacturing companies. It is the preferred fuel of the industry. Unfortunately, pet coke, being high in contaminants, is a very dirty alternative to coal for energy generation. Concerns A few years ago in Detroit, Michigan, USA, hills of pet coke began to appear along the city’s riverfront.
Those hills were growing, and people began to take notice. The growing and multiplying mounds raised concerns over the potential health and environmental hazards of pet coke. Studies found that pet coke tended to be stable in this form. However, so-called “fugitive dust” — that is, petcock dust wafted away from these storage sites by the wind — has been found to pose certain risks. Particulate matter is a mix of a number of airborne microscopic solids and liquid components. These particulates, especially those of 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller, can pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs, can get deep into the lungs, and may even get into the bloodstream, posing serious health threats. Older people and people suffering from heart or lung disease are at an increased health risk.
Particulate matter can worsen such conditions as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coronary artery disease, and more. Exposures have been linked to heart attacks and arrhythmias in those suffering from heart disease, for example. Air quality monitoring equipment on the sites hosting such stockpiles of pet coke consistently measures concentrations of particulate matter of this scale escaping on the wind. The combustion of pet coke is also problematic. Burning pet coke can have adverse environmental impacts. Its use as a fuel source yields greater amounts of greenhouse gases relative to the amount of heat it yields, compared to other common fuel sources. Further, a variety of substances that can be hazardous to health and the environment are emitted when pet coke is combusted, depending on the type of pet coke used as a source. Those substances include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and heavy metals including mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and cadmium, as well as dioxins, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen fluoride. If pet coke is burned in a regular furnace or pulverised-coal-fired power plant, the toxic metal and sulphur dioxide emissions are higher than those of coal. US oil firms produce large quantities of pet coke, which is expensive to store. Because of this, those companies are keen to sell their pet coke to energy-hungry developing nations. In doing so, they earn generous profits.
China’s economic growth has undergone an explosion in recent years. But thanks largely to the country’s accompanying industrial growth, pollution of the environment has become an cast, undeniable problem. China’s environmental woes are well-known, as evidenced by the now-famous, seemingly apocalyptic photos from Beijing. In Tiananmen Square, for example, people flock to broadcasts of the sunrise, which is now all but blocked out by thick smog, on huge outdoor TV screens. Adding to these chilling scenes are the people in them, going about their business in masks meant to protect them from the particulate matter borne by the smog. This past December, in fact, China suffered its worst air pollution of the year.
Dozens of Chinese cities released warnings to citizens about pollution reaching dangerous levels. Factories, some power plants, and schools were ordered to close. Recognising the problems pet coke poses, India is considering a nationwide ban on the substance. Citing estimates that eight people die every day — about 3,000 premature deaths in Delhi every year — due to air-pollution-related diseases, the country’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to draft a comprehensive plan to ban pet coke and control air pollution in the capital. The cement industry has expressed concerns about the possible economic impacts of a ban in New Delhi. A recent report listed New Delhi among the worst polluted cities in the world. It also reported that diseases caused by air pollution claim more than a million lives annually in India. Unchecked use of pet coke as a fuel source will only worsen China’s environmental record and further exacerbate global climate change. The same will be true of any country in which use of pet coke as a fuel continues unchecked. Health Effects of Petroleum Coke Significant quantities of fugitive dust from pet coke storage and handling operations present a health risk.
EPA is particularly concerned about particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller (referred to as PM10) because those are the particles that generally pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects. Therefore, constant monitoring is required of these facilities. For example, in Chicago, the air quality monitoring equipment installed by KCBX Terminals at its north and south facilities continuously measures concentrations of particulate matter 10 micrometers and smaller. Petroleum coke is 90 per cent elemental carbon and 3 per cent to 6 per cent elemental sulphur; the rest is elemental hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
There are also trace amounts of metals and organic compounds. While trace amounts of toxic materials have been measured in petroleum coke, studies on rats show that petroleum coke itself has a low level of toxicity and that there is no evidence of carcinogenicity. EPA’s research does not suggest that petroleum coke poses a different health risk than PM10. (Source: The United States Environmental Protection Agency) About the author (Jonathan Lyons lives and writes in Central Pennsylvania, USA. He is a futurist and an Affiliate Scholar for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies).
- Jonathan Lyons