A large pile of petroleum coke in Michigan captured public attention recently on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
Suncor uses petroleum coke to accelerate tailings pond reclamation through a process called coke capping.
Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a byproduct of upgrading bitumen to crude. Major media outlets ran articles (with accompanying photos) about a petcoke mound at a shipping dock on the Detroit River near a Marathon Petroleum refinery, which processes oil sands bitumen. The petcoke pile was also protested.
While piles of petcoke certainly aren’t pretty, the substance itself isn’t hazardous and should be no cause for alarm.
Production of petcoke isn’t unique to U.S. refineries and in fact, many upgraders around the world produce some petcoke as a byproduct of the upgrading process of heavy crudes, such as those produced in Venezuela and Mexico.
Petcoke is not considered in Canada or the U.S. to be dangerous to transport or hazardous to store. It can be transported safely in bulk by train, truck or barges.
Suncor, as noted in a past OSQAR, produces and markets petcoke. Because it is stable and non-toxic, we’ve also used it in our land reclamation program to convert tailings ponds back into living landscapes.
Tires, batteries and industrial fuel
In fact, petcoke has a variety of uses. As well as feedstock for tires, batteries and steel, petcoke can be burned as a fuel in place of coal to generate electricity for industry (although it produces five to 10 per cent more CO2 per unit of energy than coal, according to a report from a clean energy advocacy group).
So since when did piles of petcoke or indeed any other commodity which is stored in the open-air before being processed or shipped to customers become news, or a reason for protest?
It seems piles of petcoke have provided existing critics of oil sands development with a handy visual image to promote their concerns. Oil sands critics view bitumen as “junk energy” because processing it emits more greenhouse gases than producing conventional crude oil.
Some critics also believe increasing petcoke supplies will increase its use for electricity generation, prolonging the use of carbon fuels in the energy mix in the U.S. (although that country’s federal environment regulator recently stopped issuing licenses for this purpose).
Despite recent public attention, petcoke is really just another useful commodity like sulphur, lumber or indeed oil itself. Selling it for industrial use helps downstream players reduce costs of refining petroleum into affordable transportation fuels which underpin the modern mobile lifestyles most of us enjoy.
We’re taking a break to enjoy the fleeting days of summer. Look for OSQAR to resume the week of August 26.