How the tar sands produce dirty coal

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Ever heard of petcoke? It’s nasty climate-destroying stuff, left over from refining tar sands bitumen. It’s sold as coal, but it’s cheaper and dirtier, so it helps keep coal-fired plants running and destroying our atmosphere

This is from the Executive Summary of Petroleum coke: The coal hiding in the tar sands  (pdf) published this week by Oil Change International:

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 CO 2 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 CO 2 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 CO 2 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.

Canadian tar sands promoters call the stuff “ethical oil.” How do they sleep at night?