Chicago petcoke pile

Josh MogermanPetcoke piled up along the Calumet River in Chicago.

As cheap tar-sands oil flows through America’s refineries, the dusty byproduct — known as petroleum coke, or “petcoke” —  is piling up throughout the country. The stuff is too nasty to burn in U.S. power plants, so oil companies are doing the next best thing — shipping it to China, where somebody else can burn it.

Petcoke has been heaping up along the Calumet River in Chicago — and the problem will likely get worse once BP turns its Whiting Refinery into one of the world’s biggest tar-sands processors. Over in Michigan, Detroit’s mayor and other lawmakers recently fought for months before ridding their riverfront of mounds of petcoke that a Koch Industries subsidiary had stockpiled there.

So where does the petcoke go from there? The U.S. EPA will not issue new petcoke burning licenses. It’s just too dirty. Some has been sent back to Canada to be burned in power plants there. And now the Wall Street Journal reports that China’s hunger for the dirty fuel is surging:

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While countries across Latin America, Europe and even the Middle East are buying a lot of U.S.-produced gasoline and low-sulfur diesel that meets their stringent air-quality control, China is in the market for something dirtier.

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The country, which has pledged not to sacrifice the environment for short-term economic gain, is buying an increasing amount of a byproduct called petroleum coke from U.S. refiners. …

Sales of petcoke inside the U.S. have waned since 2006, according to data from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. But China’s appetite is growing. It took more than 24 million barrels of the stuff in the first half of this year, up nearly 55% over last year. The country now accounts for 20% of all the U.S. petcoke shipments overseas. …

China has been pushing to clean up its air lately. But Max Auffhammer, agricultural and resource economist at the University of California-Berkeley, points out that petcoke is even dirtier than the coal that has so badly sullied China’s environment. “It is strange to think that for some parts of the Chinese economy, we would prefer that they use coal instead of petcoke,” he told the newspaper.