From Motown to Coketown?
Is keeping the petroleum byproduct known as “petcoke” stored, in the open, on the bank of the Detroit River a wise decision?
Published: June 12, 2013
In the Oilchange International report, specific mention is made of both the Detroit refinery and the Monroe power plant:
“Marathon’s Detroit refinery began production in November 2012 following a major refit specifically designed to process Canadian tar sands bitumen. The 1,720 tons of petcoke per day (600,000 tons per year) it is expected to yield is being eyed by one of the Midwest’s biggest coal plants, Detroit Edison’s … Monroe Plant in Michigan. Tests are currently under way to see how much petcoke can be blended at the plant.”
DTE spokeswoman Randi Berris confirms that the utility has been conducting tests using petcoke mixed with coal at the Monroe plant. One reason it’s being considered, she says, is that it’s an extremely inexpensive fuel, and using it will generate significant savings for DTE’s customers.
Berris adds that, calculated a different way — using the heat produced rather than strictly by tonnage — that petcoke’s carbon dioxide emissions are similar to that of coal’s.
Also, she points out, by burning petcoke in a facility with state-of-the-art air pollution-control equipment, burning petcoke is actually more environmentally friendly than sending the stuff to landfills.
Brad van Guilder, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, provided Metro Times with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permit, issued last year, that allows DTE Monroe to derive up to 10 percent of its fuel from petcoke, which works out to about 1 million tons a year, according to van Guilder.
Berris says that the utility hasn’t “come close” to reaching the 10 percent limit in its tests so far. As for that state-of-the-art equipment, it doesn’t include anything to limit carbon dioxide, which, despite its key role in global warming, remains unregulated in the United States.
Viewed one way, it can be argued that petcoke, since it is a byproduct from a process that’s producing other fuels, has no negative impact on the environment in terms of its production.
The energy used to refine bitumen, and the pollution created by the process, would occur regardless, because the primary goal is to turn the tar sands into gasoline or other similar fuels.
Even if you accept that argument, there’s good cause to worry about increased use of petcoke to generate electricity, critics say.
For one thing, argues Lorne Stockman, author of the Oilchange International report, use of the low-cost petcoke can help prolong the economic viability of coal-burning power plants, rather than spurring conversion to the cleaner-burning natural gas or the promotion of clean alternatives such as wind and solar power.
“Lower prices can … lead to further investment in coal-burning facilities,” writes Stockman, “which locks in coal demand for decades to come.”
“Petcoke derived from tar sands bitumen is clearly a significant new source of high-carbon fuel entering a market that is already over supplied from a climate limits perspective,” writes Stockman. “Its impact on climate change cannot be dismissed and must surely be included in any climate impact analysis of the tar sands.”
Which leads to another point: as much of a problem as petcoke is for the people in Detroit living near the piles of it, or the danger it possesses in terms of adding even more greenhouse gases to a planet that is clearly warming, the bigger threat has to be to the continued excavation of Alberta’s tar sands, and the overall environmental catastrophe critics say will occur if it is allowed to continue unabated.
Viewed that way, petcoke is more of a troublesome side effect than the primary environmental malady, which is the tar sands themselves.
THAT REALITY IS REFLECTED in the recent RAD report to city council, which notes that the issues surrounding those piles of petcoke involve a “much more complex series of environmental, economic and social questions than the current storage of large amounts of petcoke on these particular sites, and merely identifying the various potential risks, exposure pathways and regulatory bodies — federal, state, local and even international — that are responsible for monitoring each of them.”
That’s not to downplay the issue of petcoke, which by all accounts is going to become more prevalent as U.S. refineries such as the Detroit Marathon plant step of the processing of bitumen. So how the City Council and Bing administration chose to handle this issue now is of real significance going forward.
But it’s also about much more than just zoning and permits, runoff to the river and fugitive dust — or even well-placed concerns about issues of environmental justice.
In a sense, the petcoke being stored along the Detroit River is just one link in a chain that starts with the mining of bitumen in Canada.
Here’s what the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute had to say about the initial steps in the process that turns tar-sands bitumen into fuel:
“Most tar sands production takes place in vast open-pit mines, some as large as 150 square kilometers and as deep as 90 meters. Before strip-mining can begin, the boreal forest must be clear-cut, rivers and streams diverted, and wetlands drained. The overburden (the soil, rocks, and clay overlying the tar sands deposit) must be stripped away and stockpiled to reach the bitumen. Four tons of material is moved to produce every barrel of bitumen. At current production rates, with just three mines operating, enough material is moved every two days to fill a 60,000-seat stadium. But only a small fraction of the bitumen deposits is close enough to the surface to be strip-mined. Over 80 percent of the established tar sands reserves are deeper and must be extracted in situ (in place) by injecting high-pressure steam into the ground to soften the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface.
“Once separated from the sand, the bitumen is still a low-grade, heavy fossil fuel that must undergo an energy-intensive process to upgrade it into a synthetic crude oil more like conventional crude, either by adding hydrogen or removing carbon. Upgrading the bitumen usually occurs before it is shipped to refineries, but sometimes raw bitumen is diluted (e.g., with naphtha) and pipelined to a refinery where it is both upgraded and refined. In the United States about three-quarters of the oil is refined into transportation fuels.”
As debate continues over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas if approved and constructed, people in Michigan have firsthand experience of the consequences if something goes wrong in the part of the process involving pipelines.
A rupture in the Enbridge pipeline near outstate Marshall, in 2010, resulted in what’s described as the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history. Cleanup costs have reportedly topped $1 billion, and the job is far from over. Making everything both more difficult — and more expensive — is that bitumen is much heavier than conventional crude oil. Instead of floating on water, where it can be skimmed off, it sinks, becoming embedded in sediment.
The U.S. EPA has determined that intensive dredging will need to take place to clean oil from the Kalamazoo River.
That sort of disaster is part of the reason why the RAD report to City Council suggests keeping the “global overview” in mind when considering future policies regarding petcoke in southwest Detroit.
“In creating and ultimately burning this substance as a byproduct of tar sands exploitation,” the report cautions, “much greater risks of catastrophic damage are inherently at stake.
“Indeed, during the very same time period that this issue arose, the concentration of climate-altering carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reportedly exceeded 400 ppm [parts per million] for the first time in approximately 3 million years (a time period predating human presence on the planet). President Obama has been considering a permit for a major pipeline for tar sands from Canada to Louisiana; and even more acutely, tornadoes of extreme ferocity essentially destroyed a number of towns in the state of Oklahoma, further emphasizing the enormous potential costs and risks at stake.
“The petcoke piles on the riverbank in southwest Detroit, as disturbing as they seem in themselves, are in all reality merely symptomatic of much more dangerous, life-threatening problems associated with the industrial extraction, processing and combustion activities that created them.”
Back on the roof of her building, McKenzie Duke points out where the Detroit Riverwalk will be extended, west from the Renaissance Center — to within about 20 feet of the property where the petcoke is being stored.
“What kind of message does that send?” she asks.
The sun is shining and a cool wind blows, but the mound of black stretching along the river has her feeling apprehensive.
She looks at it and wonders aloud how it could be anything but harmful.
“I have a decision to make,” she says. “I have to decide whether I want to keep living here.”
Curt Guyette is the news editor at Metro Times. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or email@example.com.
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