Industry

India is biggest importer of U.S. oil refinery by-product ‘petcoke’

Dark days in Delhi: In October and November, for the second year in a row, city air pollution levels were so high they couldn’t be measured by the city’s monitoring equipment.  

U.S. oil refineries that are unable to sell a dirty, fuel waste product at home are exporting vast quantities of it to India instead.

Petroleum coke, the bottom-of-the-barrel leftover from refining Canadian tar sands crude and other heavy oils, is cheaper and burns hotter than coal. But it also contains more planet-warming carbon and far more heart- and lung-damaging sulphur, a key reason few American companies use it.

Refineries instead are sending it around the world, especially to energy-hungry India, which last year got almost a fourth of all the fuel-grade “petcoke” the U.S. shipped out, an Associated Press investigation found. In 2016, the U.S. sent more than 8 million metric tonnes of petcoke to India.

That’s about 20 times more than in 2010. The petcoke burned in factories and plants is contributing to dangerously filthy air in India, which already has many of the world’s most polluted cities.

Delhi resident Satye Bir does not know all the reasons Delhi’s air is so dirty, but he says he feels both fury and resignation.

“My life is finished... My lungs are finished,” said the 63-year-old Bir, wheezing as he pulls an asthma inhaler out of his pocket. “This is how I survive. Otherwise, I can’t breathe.”

Laboratory tests on imported petcoke used near New Delhi found it contained 17 times more sulfur than the limit set for coal, and a staggering 1,380 times more than for diesel, according to India’s court-appointed Environmental Pollution Control Authority. India’s own petcoke, produced domestically, adds to the pollution.

“We should not become the dust bin of the rest of the world,” said Sunita Narain, a member of the pollution authority who also heads the Delhi-based Center for Science and the Environment. “We certainly can’t afford it; we’re choking to death already.”

Embracing tar sands

For more than a century, oil refining has served as a lifeline in America’s industrial heartland, where thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent decades.

In gritty northwest Indiana, a sprawling oil refinery and steel mills dominate the Lake Michigan shoreline. Freight trains chug through working-class neighbourhoods. And smokestacks and distillation towers still symbolise opportunity.

U.S. refineries embraced tar sands oil and other heavy crudes, when domestic oil production was stagnant before the hydraulic fracturing boom.

Some of the biggest built expensive units called cokers to process the gunky crude into gasoline, diesel, ship fuel and asphalt, which leaves huge amounts of petroleum coke as waste.

Petcoke, critics say, is making a bad situation worse across India. About 1.1 million Indians die prematurely as a result of outdoor air pollution every year, according to the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry.

In New Delhi, pollution has sharply increased over the past decade with more cars, a construction boom, seasonal crop burning and small factories on the outskirts that burn dirty fossil fuels with little oversight. In October and November, for the second year in a row, city air pollution levels were so high they couldn’t be measured by the city’s monitoring equipment.

The government’s environment ministry has dismissed the idea that petcoke threatens public health in the nation’s capital. But the country’s Supreme Court, which has consistently demanded or enacted tougher pollution control measures, recently banned petcoke use by some industries as of November 1 in the three states surrounding pollution-choked New Delhi. It also demanded tighter pollution standards that if enforced could further limit its use nationwide.


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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 8:46:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/india-is-biggest-importer-of-us-oil-refinery-by-product-petcoke/article21250196.ece

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