For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of traveling along the Detroit River lately, there’s apparently a new landmark on the Motor City waterfront – a three-story tall pile of petroleum coke, which covers an entire city block. According to a report in today’s New York Times, we have libertarian industrialists Charles and David Koch to thank for the toxic eyesore. It would seem that they’ve decided to stockpile “the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth” in Detroit until such time that it can be sold to a country that doesn’t have a legitimate regulatory agency that polices power plant emissions. (That quote comes from Lorne Stockman, the author of a recent study on petroleum coke for the environmental organization Oil Change International.)
Petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” if you aren’t familiar with the term, is the byproduct one is left with after processing oil sands, like those which are to be found in abundant supply in Canada. In this particular case, the oil sands have been brought from Alberta to be processed along the Detroit River, at a refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum. (The refinery has been active since 1930, but just began processing Canadian oil sands in November.) The Koch brothers, it would appear, have been purchasing the waste product, and stockpiling it in Detroit these past few weeks, right alongside the river from which we all drink, with the intention of eventually exporting it to a libertarian paradise like China, where, practically speaking, there don’t appear to be emissions standards. (On the open market, the material costs 25% less than coal, and generates up to 10% more CO2.)
To make matters worse, the waterside property just east of the Ambassador Bridge, where the coke is being stored, is owned by the most hated man in Detroit – billionaire slumlord Manuel (Matty) Moroun. (The Koch brothers, from what I’m told, also have a second site in Detroit, on the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority property, near the intersection of Clark and Fort.) I don’t know that I agree, as I think it has more to do with money than anything else, but some are speculating that this is Moroun’s way of getting even with the voters of Michigan, who recently decided that his Ambassador Bridge should have a publicly-owned competitor.
Here, by way of background, is a clip from the New York Times:
…An initial refining process known as coking, which releases the oil from the tarlike bitumen in the oil sands, also leaves the petroleum coke, of which Canada has 79.8 million tons stockpiled. Some is dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta. Much is just piled up there.
Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.
Marathon Petroleum’s plant in Detroit processes 28,000 barrels a day of the oil sands bitumen…
Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.
While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.
“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said. “It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”
Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.
The Keystone XL pipeline will provide Gulf Coast refineries with a steady supply of diluted bitumen from the oil sands. The plants on the coast, like the coking refineries concentrated in California to deal with that state’s heavy crude oil, are positioned to ship the waste to China or Mexico, where it is burned as a fuel. California exports about 128,000 barrels of petroleum coke a day, mainly to China…
So, the Koch brothers, who are among the most ardent global warming deniers in the country, are using Detroit as their temporary dumping ground for this filthy fuel, the use of which, according to experts, could make our current climate problem “unsolvable.” And, what’s more, according to Rashida Tlaib, the member of the Michigan House representing that part of Detroit where this coke is being stockpiled, “Nobody knew (it) was going to happen.” The Koch brothers, it would seem, began dumping the material in the City without so much as a word to those who live in the area… And apparently that’s OK. According to Andy Hartz, the southeast Michigan district supervisor with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the substance seems to fall into a regulatory gray area. Hartz told Michigan Radio yesterday that, “The DEQ does not have any kind of specific regulations that regulates this type of land use.” According to Hartz, “The product is a commodity. And because of that, it’s not a waste material.” (Hartz also said that the DEQ has been informed that the coke would be shipped out of Detroit once the ice on the Detroit River melts… which seems odd to me, given that we’ve had temperatures in the 70s these past few weeks. But who am I to question the climate science of the Koch brothers?)
It’s unknown what the environmental impact might be, but, according to the Detroit Free Press, Representatives Gary Peters and John Conyers have written to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, asking the agency to look into the coke’s potential impact on the river and residents. “We fear the storage of petroleum coke along the river poses a potential threat to water and air quality. The material may contain trace amounts of metal and could have damaging health impacts if fugitive dust enters the air. Petroleum coke that enters the water may continue to frustrate efforts to prevent contamination from runoff,” the Congressmen said in their letter.
According to the safety data sheet for petroleum coke, the material should not be allowed to contaminate ground water, and the U.S. Coast Guard and others should be notified immediately if runoff into waterways should occur. I suppose it’s possible that the Koch brothers and Matty Moroun have taken every precaution to ensure that such leakages don’t occur, but, given their histories, I don’t know that it’s likely, and, with a thunderstorm expected later tonight, I’m concerned that we may well see runoff into the Detroit River… But, on the plus side, it’s only Detroit, right? I mean, who really gives a fuck? It’s not like Koch brothers and their fellow 1-percenters are vacationing in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge, inhaling the fine carbon particulate over caviar finger sandwiches.
Having this stuff in Detroit, while disgusting, isn’t really what bothers me. What bothers me more is that wealthy American industrialists, knowing full well the ramifications in terms of human health and the environment, would be willing to ship this filthy fuel to the likes of China and Mexico, driving yet another nail into the coffin of humanity. But, really, I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Koch brothers. When have they ever demonstrated anything but the unfettered shock and awe of slash and burn capitalism in its purest form?
What’s worse, I’m sure this isn’t the end of it. I’m certain, if they had their way, they’d be able to burn petroleum coke without oversight here in the United States. (Some is burned in the U.S., but it’s use is policed to some extent.) And, given their success getting anti-union right-to-work legislation passed here in Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started here… Who wants to bet that we see something to that effect during the next lame duck session?
[note: The above image was created by our friend Ken Boyd in response to a comment left by Demetrius, suggesting that we take the opportunity to tie this story to our satirical Pure Michigan campaign.]