You are hereOil Change International: Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands

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

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-By Elizabeth Bast

January 17, 2013- 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.

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