Oil Change International

Exposing the true costs of fossil fuels

Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands

UPDATE, July 8, 2013: Click here to view a new infographic detailing how much petcoke Keystone XL would be responsible for if built.

Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands
Oil Change International
January 2013

Download a PDF of the report

See coverage of the report in the news

The Canadian tar sands have been called the “most environmentally destructive project on earth”, with good reason. Extracting tar sands bitumen from under the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada requires huge amounts of energy and water. It has cleared vast tracts of forest, left scars on the land that are visible from space and threatened the health and livelihoods of indigenous First Nations communities across the region.

It is a well established fact that full exploitation of the tar sands is a grave threat to the climate. Emissions from tar sands extraction and upgrading are between 3.2 and 4.5 times higher than the equivalent emissions from conventional oil produced in North America.On a lifecycle basis, the average gallon of tar sands bitumen derived fuel has between 14 and 37 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average gallon of fuel from conventional oil.

But as bad as these impacts already are, existing analyses of the impacts of tar sands fail to account for a byproduct of the process that is a major source of climate change causing carbon emissions: petroleum coke – known as petcoke. Petcoke is the coal hiding in North America’s tar sands oil boom.

Petcoke is like coal, but dirtier. Petcoke looks and acts like coal, but it has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal.

  • On a per-unit of energy basis petcoke emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal.
  • A ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal.
  • The proven tar sands reserves of Canada will yield roughly 5 billion tons of petcoke – enough to fully fuel 111 U.S. coal plants to 2050.
  • Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands or conventional oil production and consumption. Thus the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted.

Petcoke in the tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories.

  • There is 24 percent more CO2 embedded in a barrel of tar sands bitumen than in a barrel of light oil.
  • 15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen can end up as petcoke, depending on the upgrading and refining process used.
  • Of 134 operating U.S. refineries in 2012, 59 are equipped to produce petcoke.
  • U.S. refineries produced over 61.5 million tons of petcoke in 2011 – enough to fuel 50 average U.S. coal plants each year.
  • In 2011, over 60 percent of U.S petcoke production was exported.

Keystone XL will fuel five coal plants and thus emit 13% more CO2 than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.

  • Nine of the refineries close to the southern terminus of Keystone XL have nearly 30 percent of U.S. petcoke production capacity, over 50,000 tons a day.
  • The petcoke produced from the Keystone XL pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year.
  • These petcoke emissions have been excluded from State Department emissions estimates for the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Including these emissions raises the total annual emissions of the pipeline by 13% above the State Department’s calculations.

Cheap petcoke helps the coal industry.

  • As a refinery byproduct, petcoke is “priced to move”, selling at roughly a 25 percent discount to conventional coal.
  • Rising petcoke production associated with tar sands and heavy oil production is helping to make coal fired power generation dirtier and cheaper – globally.
  • From January 2011 to September 2012, the United States exported over 8.6 million tons of petcoke to China, most of which was likely burnt in coal-fired power plants.

“PetKoch”: The largest global petcoke trader in the world is Florida based Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch – the brother of Charles and David Koch.

  • Oxbow Carbon has donated $4.25 million to GOP super PACs, making it the one of the largest corporate donors to super PACs.
  • Oxbow also spent over $1.3 million on lobbyists in 2012.

To date, the impacts of petcoke on the local and global environment have not been considered by regulatory bodies in assessing the impacts of the tar sands. Petcoke’s full impacts must be considered by the European Union in its debate on the Fuel Quality Directive, by the U.S. State Department in its consideration of the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline, and by Canadian, American, and European governments in tar sands policies across the board.

Increasing petcoke use is a clear result of the increasing production of tar sands bitumen. Petcoke is a seldom discussed yet highly important aspect of the full impacts of tar sands production. Factored into the equation, petcoke puts another strong nail in the coffin of any rational argument for the further exploitation of the tar sands.

Comments (42)

  1. Roger C. Hall says:

    Then the end product will go to China and India I suppose and burn into the atmosphere for more pollution and the Koch brothers can own more on the monopoly board.

  2. Edna Becker says:

    Issues like this so often lead down to the Koch Bros….dirtier than coal.

  3. Rukhsana Shanbhag says:

    This is very concerning and a dangerous project. Must be stopped. Put all resources into improving solar power and wind energy.

  4. Glen Woolner says:

    We are still ready to throw the future of our children away for a buck. Even when we know better. This is an awful commentary on today’s society and its leaders. It is time to be liberated by a low carbon renewable energy transition. The more you know, you will see that It is a WIN WIN for everyone, in all aspects! It is really the way things were intended for this earth to be sustainable.

  5. Sheila Brass says:

    Unconscionable! How is this to be stopped???

  6. Luke McLaren says:

    The technology is here and has been here for some time to eradicate such injustices against nature and humanity like; starvation, war, crime, poverty, slavery, and societies dependence on oil. Sutainability for all mankind is acheivable through a Resource Based Economy; a model was proposed back in ’74 on Larry King by Jaques Fresco, and is well outlined in a documentary titled ‘Moving Forward’ on youtube free. This is how we can solve the problems of today tomorrow..

  7. Ieva Zadina says:

    How many times can a heart be broken?

  8. BRENT STEELE says:

    HOW HUMANITY DESTROYED ITSELF AND ITS PLANET

  9. Jas Smith says:

    The following would add credibility to the report: a bibliography (the report contains numerous footnotes but the sources are unclear), and a background for the authors?
    Thank You

  10. Trapper in Alberta, Trapline #806, Been fighting Oil and Gas Exploration and Forestries since 1996 but no meaningful results. EUB environmental utilities board said there was no danger to my line and so development was allowed to continue. INAC Indian and Northern Affairs refered me back to provincial bodies which said compensation was with trapper’s association. I also said I was not interested in money and wanted to be consulted but always told to move my traps from designated area’s for exploration. It was reported there was 2 area’s that had 1sq miles of tar sands on trapline. Esso Plant boosted yrs ago they could retrieve 3000 barrels of bitumen daily I dont no now what it is about 20klms west of my Trapline. We are waging a War on Oil and Gas Exploration by boycoting trapping since 1996 until oil and gas componies listen to our demands. Every where there is cutlines being cut on previous untouched virgen lands. My trapline is no used to reffuge for many disoriented and displaced animals scared away everywhere else. Trying to retain a natural habitate for next generation but with now newly proposed Omnibus Bill C-38/ C-45 ect. our Treaty 6 Rights are now being trampled and we will be seen as terrerist on our own Lands. Recently recieved Original Maps of 1887 from INAC official that inclosed most of inclosed area as belonging to Great Grandfather who signed treaty 6. Our reserve is currently 6 sq miles and map shows 28 sq miles and also included lands on Cold Lake air weapons range. Omnibus Bill will allow members with no legal or blood ties to become band members and be allowed to sell there portions to corporate entities. Melvin John (Kehewin) Kehewin Cree Nation, Treaty 6.

  11. Nancy says:

    The reason God buried oil, coal and natural gas so deep in the Earth is so that we could not easily utilize it.

    But leave it to man and his almighty $$$$$ to come up with ways that he could – and NEVER worry about whether he Should.

  12. Woody Pfister says:

    We need jobs in the United States. Reliable sources of domestically produced energy drive our economy.

    Those who would block this pipeline and send the oil to China’s clean industries are …….

    You fill in the blank

  13. We need to stop projects like this. Focusing more on things like solar and hydro power is the future. Its sad that we cant learn these things until its too late.

  14. Larry Berry says:

    An interesting article that simply points to further evidence that we don’t know what “they” are doing. And, probably, in a very real sense, “they” don’t know what they are doing, either. It is imperative that this insanity be stopped. People, who otherwise don’t have a dog in this hunt, are still being told that XL will be of economic benefit to themselves. In other words, they are still being lied to.

  15. Gordon Chamberlain says:

    We have to ask are politcal and corporate leaders are capable of ecocide the large scale long term damage or destruction of our environment. Here we have evidence of global human, ecological and economic accounting fraud.
    When does the government of Alberta plan to charge the petroleum corporations for the now revealed CO2
    Are political and corporate leaders capable of ecocide?
    Cross Posted From Guardian
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/22/china-australia-carbon-bomb?commentpage=1
    Ecocide is the large scale long term damage or destruction of our environment, more correctly the web of life, and our life support systems.
    I remind you royalty, politicians, business, religious leaders and criminals once thought slavery and colonialism were good business models.
    If destabilizing our planets climate is not ecocide who convinced you to think otherwise? Politicians? Radical fundamentalist Capitalists?
    Every group has radicals what threat do radical fundamentalist capitalist post to the fate of life on our planet? Do they intend to massively increase global climate destabilizing emission ?

    The campaign has begun to have ecocide prosecuted by the International Criminal Court It is now being debated at international legal forums at Rio, the UN FAO and the UNEP. Of course Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Peter Mackay has told you about the threat to Nova Scotia by ocean acidification, sea level rise and worsening storms. Right, they have told you haven’t they? Where we draw the line on the plundering of fish, forest, mineral, water resources , the destabilization of our planets climate will determine how much of the web of life and humanity survives.

    Potential acts of ecocide:
    Climate destabilization with the associated sea level rise, ocean acidification, ecosystem damage, collapse and mass death ;
    Ocean dead zones, due to inadequate regulation of fertilizers, chemicals ;
    The plundering of fish resources (the northern cod, Blue fin Tuna, sharks, whales, );
    The destruction of rainforest ecosystems in the Amazon, Indonesia, the democratic Republic of the Congo;
    Through illegal logging and condone government policies;
    The British Petroleum toxic disaster (with ongoing mortality of humans, fish, dolphins, turtles, deformities shrimp fish) that was not a spill;
    The destruction of the Aral Sea
    Mountain ecosystem destruction due to coal mining;
    The inadequate assessment, regulation and commercialization of hazardous chemicals;
    Unsustainable harvesting or contamination of ground water resources;

    On Dec the 7th 2012 The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the creation of the
    International Advisory Council for the Advancement of Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2700&ArticleID=9350&l=en
    Seven Supreme Court judges, the US EPA Chief Council and Canada Commissioner of the environment make up this council

    This advisory Council should the impetus for the creation of the International Environmental Court (IEC) or for ecocide to be prosecuted under the mandate of the International Criminal Court?

    In January 2013 a EU Citizens initiative began to advance legislation against ecocide
    http://eradicatingecocide.cmail1.com/t/ViewEmail/r/7EDF8501F7FB82C7/AF8D5E5BB89FC753F351F20C80B74D5E

    To find out more visit
    http://eradicatingecocide.com/
    If you support this campaign
    Join Eradicating Ecocide
    Share it on you network
    Sign the petition
    Write your political rep, Prime Minister, President and the media and demand they Tell Us The Truth what threat does large scale long term damage of our environment post to the web of life, national security the fate of humanity. Should ecocide be subject to criminal prosecution ?

    Gordon Chamberlain
    Eradicating Ecocide Canada

  16. James Eldridge says:

    The world was going to end in catastrophe when Saddam Hussein torched the oil fields in Kuwait. But we are all still here. That conclusion was based upon emotions, as is this article. The Canadians have a resource based economy. Forestry, fisheries, mining, oil and gas – Darrly Hannah can get herself arrested several hundred more times if she wants – the Canadians will still develop and market their resources. And it will not matter if they have a Conservative, Liberal or NDP (socialist) government.

  17. Dave Bortz says:

    Nobody talks about the “sands” leftover from tar sands after petcoke is extracted. Isn’t that toxic too?

  18. There is a company called Ivanhoe Energy that has just received an environmental certificate from the Canadian government for its heavy to light oil conversion process utilizing the tar sands, bitumen, etc. Their process is energy positive, utilizes the produced coke and natural gas that exists in the ground at the site of production, for the required energy, with minimal emissions. Their process is being used successfully in Guatemala and Tamarack in Alberta. There are answers.

  19. Ruth Germain says:

    Like and Share https://www.facebook.com/PetroleumCokeAwareness?fref=ts
    It shows how mountains of Koch pet coke is stockpiles along the Detroit River, less than a mile from downtown Detroit and downtown Windsor.
    Pet coke is now being created in the US and USED in the US. Detroit Edison is mixing it with coal for up to 80% of its energy. So are other utilities companies. The remaining ash, and there’s lots of it, goes in landfills where all of the heavy metals leach into ground water.

  20. Ruth Germain says:

    Check out Facebook site called Petroleum Coke Awareness. It has all the media reports etc on the mountains of pet coke being stockpiled alongside the Detroit River, less than a mile from downtown Detroit and downtown Windsor. Detroit Edison, the power utility company is now mixing it with coal to get up to 80% of their power. The ash gets buried in landfill sites where the heavy metals leach into the ground water. Who is being protected here???

  21. [...] Change International’s new report “Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands” reveals that current analyses of the impacts of tar sands fail to account for a high-carbon [...]

  22. The Earth system’s responses to climate change appear to be non-linear, if we venture far beyond the 2 degrees guardrail, towards the 4 degrees line, the risk of crossing tipping points rises sharply. The only way to avoid this is to break the business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption.

  23. Val says:

    You really believe that? “The only way to avoid this is to break the business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption.” I think the best way to avoid this is to stop using up all the natural resources.

  24. [...] Stockman, who recently published a study on petroleum coke for a environmental organisation Oil Change International, says, “It’s [...]

  25. John says:

    The article does not address two things:
    If petcoke has more carbon than coal, it probably contains more available energy than coal. So if a ton of petcoke produces 53.6 % more CO2 than a ton of coal, and also produces 53.6 % more electricity than a ton of coal, then the two are CO2-equivalent.
    Also, coal can be anywhere from 25% to 98% carbon. Just what ‘average’ coal is the petcoke being compared to?

  26. Lorne Stockman says:

    John, you are right that petcoke has more energy and that there are many grades of coal with differing energy and carbon content. In the full report we explain that on a per-unit-of-energy basis, petcoke releases 5-10% more CO2 than coal. This is based on the two most prolific grades of coal, bituminous and sub-bituminous. There is definitely a range and so it depends what you compare with. Anthracite is the most carbon intense form of coal and is on a par with petcoke, but it is a small proportion or world coal reserves.

    I think the main issue is that in order to keep climate change from getting out of control, we need to be reducing not increasing emissions. Tar sands production and consumption increases emissions per unit of net energy produced and that is going in the wrong direction.

  27. Judy Teare says:

    Expander Energy an Alberta company has developed a patented process using existing proven technology that can reduce GHG by 80% and increase high value product yield by 120%. The process retains and maintains carbon within the system creating a high value and quality synthetic Diesel and Jet fuel. It will eliminate the huge waste products currently made through the current Coker system (referred to above) – using Expander’s process there would be no huge piles of bitumen or heavy oil residuals like the one seen in your article. The only waste product is industrial grade water on a 1:1 ratio per barrel of SCO. Patent was just granted last week for the process FTCrude(R) which is to be used in the Heavy Oil Industry. It can be used for full or partial upgrading of heavy oil residuals.

    Expander’s Enhanced Fischer-Tropsch(R) process can use virtually any carbon rich source – such as Pet-coke, Bitumen, Heavy Oil Residuals, GTL, to MSW to Biomass.

    It is revolutionary and is the process that the David Black’s Kitimat Refinery has announced intentions of using in B.C. Canada. Interest in this process is at an all time high with finalization of the patents.

    This process could change the worlds view of the Alberta Oilsands “Dirty Oil” label. And, the process can be utilized worldwide.

  28. Merrill Fisher says:

    stop ruining America to make a few people rich.

  29. carolyn webb says:

    figkt the koch brothers-you have nothing tn lose by fighting them

  30. Vesa Kaakkuriniemi says:

    We have to move beyond oil now. As if it were not enough to let oil industry to fuel climate change, now it is ruining our land and water. It took about 100 years to create this oil economy, how long will it take to get rid of it?
    Shell and other big oil (as well as industry-scale fishing fleets) should be prevented from making any move on the Arctic waters and ice!

  31. [...] Stockman, who recently published a study on petroleum coke for the environmental group Oil Change International, says, “It’s really the [...]

  32. Christopher Campbell says:

    Big oil is the one controling the gop and obstruction!

  33. […] 2013 study by the group Price of Oil calls petcoke “coal hiding in the tar sands,” and said that the […]

  34. […] Petcoke can be used as a cheap fuel for coal-fired power plants, yet it releases 53.6 percent more CO2. “Petcoke is the coal hiding in the tar sands,” said Lorne Stockman, research director for Oil Change International. […]

  35. jim kinney says:

    Were killing this planet and were as guilty as the greedy mfers that make the stuff if we dont try to fight this.Call your reps.fed and state for a start but also tell your friends and family members , especially the ones that vote. This is our country and our world dont let them ruin it any more than it is. educate orgaize!

  36. Goony says:

    I think Focusing more on things like solar and hydro power is the future, so It would be good to stop it now.

  37. Cadey Sontag says:

    The particulate matter from huge and vile pet coke piles is associated with all kinds of heart, respiratory and developmental problems, including substantial increases in the number of premature births born to women living in the vicinity. Who pays for the human tragedy, the expense, the loss of quality of life?

  38. David Brown says:

    The fossil fuel empire’s Frankenstein essence is ready and shown again and again capable of killing its creator: us via our purchasing dollar. I’ve seen us as complicit zombies repeating our mantra: “We got to go with what we got,” but now some of us -but not enough- are awoken from our slumber knowing we need to brake our chains.

    Yes, damn straight, with KXL protesting and civil disobedience are essential, because , this time those involved are the super rich oil companies and their consumers in China. And we the people will get only a few jobs trickled down, but our main job will be dying.

    But not enough of us see this Frankenstein, therefore , we must show in our personal lives that there are solutions: invest in solar, buy clean energy credits, ride a bike, take public transportation etc. We must do this!

  39. I’m not sure that I can totally agree that it is the “most environmentally destructive project on earth”

  40. Lucy Howard says:

    The enormous amount of carbon stored in the Boreal Forest acts like a giant biofiltration system to preserve air and water quality. As the Tar Sands expands, this filter will be significantly reduced and destroyed. Tar Sands development leaves behind barren earth and large ponds of toxic sludge. Here in the U.S. the coal sludge from Duke Energy has leached and spewed into ground water and rivers making these waters lethal to drink and lethal to aquatic life. Tar Sands produces many toxic sludge pits that will poison the remaining Boreal ecosystem. Tar Sands will also make local weather patterns more eradic.

  41. Isabell says:

    Projects like this would only do harm on our atmosphere resulting that would result or add on global warming. People should use the power of the sun to harnest energy. But i think is we are not quite ready for this kind technology. Imagine what would happen to the global economy if everybody will stop using petroleum.

  42. connie gonzalez says:

    we also have a stock pile of petcoke just across our neighood of 300 homes. Who is doing something about the black dust(coal) that blows during the time when the winds blow 30 to 60 miles per hour form the north. Corpus Christi is a city of many refineries. Name a few Citgo, Koch, Valero

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