Specialist in Energy Policy
Richard K. Lattanzio
Analyst in Environmental Policy
In early 2013, media outlets around Detroit, Michigan began publishing stories about large piles of petroleum coke stored along the Detroit Riverfront. Petroleum coke (petcoke) is a blackcolored solid composed primarily of carbon, and may contain limited amounts of elemental forms of sulfur, metals and non-volatile inorganic compounds. Petcoke is essentially chemically inert. Petcoke exposure is considered to pose few human health or environmental risks, but may present significant nuisance concerns. The material in Detroit was the byproduct of the nearby Marathon Refinery’s processing of heavy crude oils derived, in part, from Canadian oil sands deposits. The situation gained national attention with the publication of an article in the New York Times (“A Black Mound of Canadian Oil Waste Is Rising over Detroit,” New York Times, May 17, 2013). The piles of petcoke sparked local concerns over the potential impacts of the material on human health and the environment, and whether these concerns were adequately addressed by local, state, and federal regulations. As petroleum refining is a nationwide commercial industry, these concerns may arise in other regions.
Petcoke is a co-product of several distillation processes used in refining heavy crude oil. Nearly half of U.S. petroleum refineries (56 or more) use a coking process to convert heavy crude oils into refined petroleum products, and more refineries may follow suit to take advantage of the supply of heavy crude oils from Canada’s oil sands projects. Although it is a refining co-product, petcoke has economic value as both a heating fuel and raw material in manufacturing. In 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that U.S. refineries produced in excess of 56 million metric tons of petcoke, of which 80% was exported.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has surveyed the potential human health and environmental impacts of petcoke through its High Production Volume (HPV) Challenge Program and found the material to be highly stable and non-reactive at ambient environmental conditions. Most toxicity analyses of petcoke find it has a low potential to cause adverse effects on aquatic or terrestrial environments as well as a low health hazard potential in humans, with no observed carcinogenic, reproductive, or developmental effects. Cases of repeated-dose and chronic inhalation of fugitive dust (as generated during petcoke handling and storage) in animal studies do appear associated with respiratory inflammation. Emissions from the combustion of petcoke, however, can have impacts on human health and the environment, including the release of common pollutants, hazardous substances, and high levels of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
While some federal statutes address certain environmental impacts of petcoke’s life-cycle, most regulatory action and oversight has been undertaken at the state and local levels, generally through facility-specific permitting requirements. Federally, petcoke is exempted from classification as either a solid or hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and is not considered a hazardous substance under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Petcoke facilities may be regulated under certain provisions of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program, as authorized by the Clean Water Act (CWA), if it is determined that runoff from sites where it is stored has the potential to transport the substance to nearby surface waters. The handling of petcoke may also create instances of reduced air quality due to releases of fugitive dust into the atmosphere. Most of the impacts of fugitive dust are localized; and thus, much of the regulatory oversight is implemented at the local and state level. Whether such oversight is providing adequate protection is among the issues that have been raised.
Date of Report: October 29, 2013
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R43263
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