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False Green Prophet?
What’s Dirtier Than Coal and Is Gaining Popularity in China?

No, that isn’t the start to a riddle, but a question that itself raises doubts about Beijing’s newfound green motivations. The Christian Science Monitor reports on a particularly dirty fossil fuel that’s being increasingly used in China:

Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a byproduct of petroleum refining that contains over 90 percent carbon and is high in thermal value. Chinese companies in various industries have increasingly turned to it since 2006, when the country experienced a fuel shortage. […]

“In China, the petcoke is little known to most of the statistics and even to the energy sector itself, so we cannot find the official data of the petcoke consumption in the national statistics book,” Wang Tao, resident scholar at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said in a Wednesday discussion at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They don’t even have the category of petcoke until 2010.”

The United States, China’s partner in its joint statement outlining emissions reductions targets last November, is the predominant exporter of petcoke for China, and while data for China’s own usage are scarce, our numbers show Beijing bought more than 10 times as many barrels last year as compared to 2008.

This doesn’t doom China to a forever smog-covered future, but it does remind us that a countervailing narrative to that apocalyptic vision—that Beijing has suddenly turned over a verdant green leaf out of some deep appreciation for natural beauty—is equally specious. China’s target setting last fall was a savvy PR move, as the CCP saw a way to wrap national security concerns, like the reduction of dependence on foreign energy sources or growing social unrest over endemic urban smog, in green platitudes. But if and when Beijing moves to reduce its imports of American petcoke, it won’t be because it yearns to live more fully in harmony with Mother Earth, but rather because it wants to cut reliance on an American energy supply.

Similarly, China’s plan to rapidly build out its nuclear energy industry has much more to do with energy security than eco-idealism. Breathless green observers would do well to keep those motivations in mind, as they’re a big reason why world’s nations won’t sign on to a binding international treaty in Paris this December.

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  • Josephbleau

    I am often nonplussed by the technical naivete of the writers here. Don’t you know that I can make the combustion of natural gas sooty and full of carbon monoxide by simple adjustment to the fuel air ratio? Don’t you know that under current US coal combustion regs requiring ESP’s with wet scrubbers and SNOx ROx control there is virtually no emission of particulate? By saying “Dirty” you mean produces CO2. CO2 is a clean odorless colorless gas making up 3% of the atmosphere and is naturally emitted by earth processes. If you think CO2 causes problems– don’t miss lead and say it is “dirty” be honest and say it is theorized to cause global warming. Don’t use incorrect language to miss-state the facts please.

    • Josephbleau

      I should note that since China is a collective dictatorship they don’t have the same emission standards as the US and their people suffer as a result, but don’t blame coal or pet coke, blame the leaders of that State for refusing to do what is right.. Note the rape of the environment by the Soviet Union.

    • josephtoomey

      Guess again. CO2 comprises about 0.04% of the atmosphere (about 400 parts per million), not 3%. If CO2 comprised 3%, most of us would experience some level of respiratory stimulation and some would actually succumb to CO2 intoxication causing mental confusion, the kind that makes otherwise intelligent people think CO2 is a pollutant.

      As someone once said, “don’t use incorrect language to misstate the facts please.”

  • SLEcoman

    It might be good to note that China is easily the world’s largest producers of Aluminum (50+% of global production). 0.5 ton of petroleum coke is required to produce each 1.0 ton of primary aluminum, and there is no substitute for petroleum coke in the production of primary aluminum. Over 2/3 of China’s petcoke consumption was for producing aluminum.

    The second biggest use was for the production of glass. Petroleum coke (a.k.a. petcoke) is used because it is less expensive than fuel oil, natural gas is not available, and coal cannot be used due to its high ash content.

    Nobody purchases barrels of petroleum coke since it is a dry bulk solid similar in appearance to coal. If one discusses exporting barrels of petroleum coke, one is not using the best statistics source. The US Department of Commerce reports exports of petroleum coke in metric tons, which is the proper method for reporting petroleum coke exports. Commercially, petroleum coke is sold by weight, not volume (e.g. barrels).

    It should be noted that exports of high sulfur petroleum coke from the US to China has plummeted since April 2014 due to pressure from Chinese government authorities to not import high sulfur petroleum coke. I would point out that the EU is the single largest market for US petroleum coke exports and Japan routinely is the #2 or #3 destination for US petroleum coke exports, so US petroleum coke is not primarily destined to countries with lax environmental laws.

    Globally in 2014 approximately 130 million MT of petroleum coke was produced. To put this in perspective, global coal production was 7,000+ million MT. From a global CO2 emissions perspective, petroleum coke is not the ‘tail that wags the dog’, it is the ‘flea on the tail that wags the dog’.

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