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Pet Coke: The New Coal?

Across America, utilities are embracing a dirtier, cheaper fuel

December 22, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

If the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approves the Wolverine Power Cooperative’s proposed Rogers City power plant, it will be the first large-scale, coal-fired power plant approved by the state since 1984. But it will also mark another significant development—the first approval of a largely petroleum-coke fired, utility-scale power plant in the state.

But Michigan is hardly alone. Citizen groups across the country are seeing a rise in utility interest in burning pet coke, a waste product from oil refineries, even though it presents more environmental problems than coal: It’s very dusty, contains more toxic heavy metals, emits more sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen that cause a number of health and environmental problems, and generates more ash that is more toxic.

But pet coke is also cheaper than coal, which is why utilities want to burn it. Several are pushing for permission to use the product heavily in their plants; others already have gained approval.

So Wolverine’s proposed shift to pet coke could be a sign of things to come. And, as is the case with Wolverine’s project in Rogers City, citizen groups elsewhere say that they are having trouble getting specific information from utilities about exactly how they plan to deal with the substance.

Global warming considerations aside, that has some of them very concerned.

“Pet coke is filthy,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office, which is leading the fight against a proposed petroleum coke plant in Corpus Christi, Tex. “Burning this waste product releases a series of toxic pollutants that are hazardous to breathe and put our health at risk.”

Even facilities that merely handle, not burn, petroleum coke are generating intense complains from local residents about the material. The Port of Long Beach, in Long Beach, Calif., reported significant environmental problems in 2001 as a result of the presence of a petroleum coke processing facility there. Like the residents of Oregon, Ohio, homeowners there reported having black dust all over their homes on a daily basis.

In the face of a long public outcry over continual problems with the blowing, black dust, the company owning the facility was required to spend $7.5 million to cover its petroleum coke piles.

The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that if petroleum coke dust is inhaled in sufficient quantities, it can cause cancer, and that “studies have shown a link between elevated levels of coke dust in the air and the deaths of people with respiratory illness and heart disease. An early study in Long Beach showed that coke dust comprised 12% to 15% of air pollutants.”

Here is a list of some utilities that are either pushing to burn pet coke or have already made the switch:


  • Las Brisas Energy Center, LLC, is now seeking to build a power plant in Corpus Christi that would burn petroleum coke.

  • White Stallion is a 1,200-megawatt power plant proposed for south of Bay City, Texas, that would burn coal and petroleum coke.

  • Excelsior Energy is trying to construct an energy production facility that would use coal and petroleum coke in Minnesota. The project has been troubled by an inability by the company to get necessary permits.

  • Another company recently announced the retooling of its oil-fired steam generating units at the EA Northside Repowering Project in Jacksonville, Fla. The change was made so that the facility could burn both coal and petroleum coke.

  • One of the nation’s biggest energy companies, AES, recently spent $611 million last year to acquire two petroleum coke-fueled power plants in Mexico.

  • The Coleson Cove power plant in Canada wants to abandon burning oil to generate electricity in favor of burning petroleum coke. The Canadian government gave the facility a full year to test the burning of pet coke, but environmentalists say the process is no test: it is instead the first step in a full conversion of the power plant so that it can burn petroleum coke.

  • Teco Energy recently constructed a 850 megawatt power plant in 2000 in Lake Charles, La., that is fueled by petroleum coke.

  • In 2006, Central Power & Light's old natural-gas-fired E.S. Joslin power plant in Port Comfort, Texas, was “to be reactivated as a petroleum-coke-fueled plant by NuCoastal Power,” according to media reports.

Glenn Puit. a veteran investigative journalist, is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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