The recent discoveries of petcoke in wetland reclamation projects have revived conversations about the importance of coastal restoration and raised further questions regarding Louisiana’s commitment to its Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Although ‘black stuff’ should obviously not be found so close to ‘green stuff,’ many individuals may be unfamiliar with petcoke as a whole.
A byproduct of the oil refining process, petroleum coke (also known as petcoke or pet coke) is stockpiled onsite or moved to centralized holding facilities once produced. As global coal markets have shifted over the years, what was seen as a waste product is now sourcing cheap energy production, both here and overseas. The low cost of petcoke naturally reflects its inherent dirtiness. That is, burning a ton of petcoke releases over 50% more CO2 emissions than burning the same amount of coal. And like coal, it also contains heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can be harmful to human and ecosystem health.
As a general rule, heavier means of refinement produce larger amounts of petcoke. The heaviest substance capable of refinement is bitumen, a material close in texture and appearance to tar. Bitumen must be freed from accompanying sands, minerals, and water upon extraction, and then diluted with volatile organic condensate before transport. This separation process is quite energy-intensive, yet recent technological advances have made it increasingly popular to substitute bitumen for standard petroleum in refining processes.
The world’s largest bitumen deposits are in Alberta, Canada. They are collectively known as the ‘oil sands’ or ‘tar sands,’ depending on whom you ask. Tar-sand extraction has greatly increased over the past decade, pushing Canadian refineries to their operational capacities. Our neighbors to the north have thus prioritized bitumen export, to fully monetize their bountiful resource. They've especially directed their attention towards the Gulf Coast, given the region’s immense refining infrastructure and ability to access high-paying foreign markets.
Canadian bitumen transport is usually thought to involve extensive pipelines like the Keystone Pipeline, whose final leg, ‘Keystone XL,’ still awaits denial/approval from President Obama. But as surpluses accumulate in Alberta, tar-sand companies have begun moving their unrefined material across the continent without pipelines at all. In fact, domestic bitumen rail traffic increased almost threefold just this past year! While the pressurized and heated railcars required to transport bitumen can explode, tar-sand interests accept this risk because of the financial allure of refined petroleum exports.
The idea of increased rail traffic brings us to Saint James Parish, where the Parish Council recently voted 6-1 to deny an application from Wolverine Terminals Corporation. Wolverine planned to construct a tar-sands terminal in Paulina that would have transferred Canadian bitumen from rail to barge, in order to access massive refineries downriver. Largely based off the facility’s proximity to residential properties, the council’s decision also weighed the potential health effects that could stem from exposure to the many airborne pollutants associated with bitumen activities: benzene, n-hexane, and hydrogen sulfide, to name a few. The culmination of months of community organizing (and facilitated in part by our friends at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network), this denial is genuinely good news.
This instance however also highlights the sneaky wordplay employed by tar-sand companies as they navigate our world’s shifting energy markets. Wolverine simply refers to the Paulina project as a crude oil facility in all its public documentation, save a single mention of oil sands in its Environmental Assessment:
“The facility will store and transfer crude oil and condensate derived from oil sands. The crude oil and condensate offer an alternative fuel source than conventional oil. This alternative fuel source ensures energy sustainability for the world as well as the U.S.”
If we ignore the absurdity of calling oil sands a sustainable energy source, we will see Wolverine circumvented the standard notion of crude oil (that is, unrefined petroleum) by relating their product to conveniently-named “conventional oil” (in this case, also unrefined petroleum). This questionable framing allowed them to benignly describe their facility as just another crude oil terminal, even though it would’ve housed volatile bitumen mixtures sourced from tar-sand operations in Canada.
It's worth briefly noting that Wolverine is the American subsidiary of a Canadian company, Grizzly Oil Sands. And Grizzly itself is owned by Wexford Capital LP, a private equity firm based in Connecticut. Wolverine’s assurance of “energy sustainability” should now seem even more foolish, given the sole existential purpose of a private equity firm is to take money and turn it into more money.
Reeling it all back in, petcoke will soon accumulate at unprecedented rates as the Gulf’s refineries begin to accept heavy, Canadian-sourced bitumen. It may end up in our wetlands or it could perhaps be sold as a substitute for coal. Either way, the health and well-being of our coastal communities will bear the largest costs of this resource monetization.
James Hartwell is a public health graduate student and GRN’s Water Resources Intern.