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Under-estimating the climate impacts of bitumen

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The news out of Detroit is pretty shocking. The only thing more shocking is that it is not making headlines in Canada.

The New York Times has been reporting that a mountain of coke, waste from refining Alberta bitumen, is towering over the streets of Detroit. An entire city block is buried in the waste that looms three stories above city streets. The pile is occupying precious waterfront, prime for local use. And it threatens the water quality of the Detroit River.

The source of the waste is a refinery on the Detroit River. And the mountain of waste is now owned by those billionaire brothers, key funders of climate-denier propaganda, David and Charles Koch. Just as they own the refineries for which the Keystone XL pipeline is being promoted, they own and operate Koch Carbon. Although the plant has been in operation for more than 70 years, just this last November it began to process the bitumen-diluent material, as I described in Island Tides in the April 25 edition, 'Pipelines to the East.' The mountain of coke has accumulated in just that amount of time.

While the coke is a local pollution concern, it poses a much more serious risk in terms of global warming. It turns out that petroleum coke -- or 'petcoke' as it is known -- is actually used as fuel in parts of the world. (Parenthetically, note the techno-jargon of the business of bitumen. Bitumen mixed with diluents is 'dilbit'; petroleum coke is 'petcoke.' Why the love of cute abbreviation?)

It turns out that one of the major (if not the major) sellers of petcoke in the world is Oxbow Carbon, owned by the third Koch brother, William Koch. If you like reading the reports of fundraising highlights of the US Republican Party, you'll know that Oxbow donated $4.25 million to the GOP in 2012. And, for extra measure, used over $1 million in lobbying fees over the same period.

Oxbow currently sells over 11 million tons of petcoke globally. If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, the mountains of petcoke will line the Gulf of Mexico awaiting Koch customers to ship it to countries where its use is still legal.

Of course, the cheapest and most efficient way to get petcoke sold as a fuel is if the refineries processing the bitumen are situated in countries where its use is legal, like China.

Petcoke is the most monstrous of carbon-based fuels. It has 10 per cent more carbon than coal and is 25 per cent cheaper. Its use as fuel is illegal in Canada and the United States.

However, it looks as though growth in its use is being promoted. While researching petcoke, I came across the promotional materials for a petcoke conference that took place in San Antonio, Texas this spring. Sorry, folks, but this is chilling:

'Ever since petroleum coke was first produced over 150 years ago, its value has increased from a waste product to a viable commodity -- from shadowed trash to enlightening treasure! Originally considered as a material to be disposed of and buried, petcoke has grown into an industry that has spiraled into a global market. Join us for Jacobs Consultancy's 12th Annual Petcoke Conference to explore world-class advancements that no longer consider 'petcoke' to be a dirty word, but instead a rising star as a premier fuel and carbon feedstock.'

This adds an entirely new dimension to the oilsands debate. Current calculations of the carbon footprint of bitumen-based crude may not include the impact of using this waste by-product as a fuel. Certainly, within Canada, the use of petcoke is precluded. What impact does it have on overall calculations when burning petcoke is added to the already high carbon-footprint of unconventional oil sands bitumen crude?

If burning petcoke were to be included, the already enormous carbon footprint of oil sands jumps up another notch. Here are some back of the envelope calculations:

-  Alberta oil sands = 1.3 million barrels/day

-  Amount of carbon in petcoke per barrel = 15 kg of carbon

-  Amount of petcoke carbon produced per day = 20 million kg of carbon.

Now, convert 20 million kg of carbon to kilogrammes of carbon dioxide (times 44/12) = 70 million kg CO2/day in petcoke, which translates to 26 megatonnes of CO2/year).

So, while the Koch brothers run a propaganda mill to deny climate science, the Canadian government does their bidding, shilling for the XL pipeline to deliver both bitumen and petcoke to their ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Yet another reason to say 'No' to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Originally published in Island Tides.

Photo: Stephen Boyle/flickr

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