Here’s a way environmentalists can capitalize on Secretary of State Kerry’s characterization of climate change as the “most fearsome weapon of mass destruction”, a hyperbole he used in a speech in Indonesia last week. Despite the current surfeit of light oil resulting from the shale oil boom, the wave of the future is likely to be increasing production of heavy oil, the stuff that will flow (sluggishly) through the Keystone XL pipeline if it is ever built. That that is where the future lies is demonstrated by our refiners betting hard money on it, having geared up their refineries to process heavy oil coming from Canada’s tar sands and Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt.
One of the less desirable byproducts of refining heavy oil is something called petroleum coke or petcoke for short. Petcoke can substitute for coal and is used in the generation of electricity and the manufacture of various industrial products. But petcoke emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal on a per-unit-of-energy basis, 30 to 80 percent more per unit of weight. Moreover, it often has a high sulfur content, a smog-producer which wafts into the air when petcoke is burnt.
The more heavy oil refined, the more petcoke available to be sold, and the quantity churned out by our refineries has been increasing steadily over the last few years. Exports of petcoke have helped make the United States a net exporter of petroleum products, those exports now totaling over a half million barrels per day. In fact, petcoke contributes more to our export of refined petroleum products than gasoline and is second only to fuel distillates (whatever they are).
The United States provides over one-half of the petcoke traded in the global market. China is our best customer, their purchases having tripled over the last four years. Last year alone China’s purchases increased by 50 percent. With its insatiable appetite for energy and constraints placed on the burning of petcoke in this country, China is likely to import more of our petcoke in the years ahead, despite their frantic efforts to clean their air.
If we are serious about doing something about global warming, shouldn’t we save the Chinese from themselves – and ourselves and the rest of the world at the same time – by banning the export of petcoke? Free marketeers will raise a hue and cry about government intrusion into the marketplace, but they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, considering that we have banned the export of crude oil for some 40 years now. If we are unwilling to make this trivial sacrifice to our bottom line (a few hundred million, maybe billion, a year), how much are we really concerned about the threat from global warming? If we use the vile stuff to fill exhausted open pit mines, banning its export might even make good economic sense in the long run. Buried in the ground, the petcoke would represent an energy stockpile we can tap as needed, if we ever figure out how to burn the stuff cleanly.
• This article was first published at Veracity Voice.