You often hear it said that coal is the world’s dirtiest fuel, which isn’t quite right. There’s actually an even dirtier fuel out there, petroleum coke. Often called “petcoke,” it’s a dense coal-like and carbon-intense fuel that is the byproduct of refining certain kinds of oils. It figures into the Northwest’s fossil fuel debate in a way that links coal exports to the region’s changing oil supplies.

The clearest link is perhaps at Cherry Point in northwest Washington, where a large refinery owned by BP sits practically next door to the site of the proposed Gateway Pacific export terminal. Although Gateway Pacific is usually, and correctly, referred to as a coal export terminal, the site’s plans clearly call for handling petcoke in the initial phases of operations. (In fact, calcined petroleum coke is one of the non-coal “dry bulk commodities” the project supporters refer to when they are trying to draw attention away from coal.)

Conveniently, the BP refinery at Cherry Point annually produces 800,000 tons of calcined coke as a salable byproduct of its refining process. BP currently ships its petcoke out by rail to industrial users in North America and beyond, but having a petcoke-ready export terminal in the neighborhood would surely add a financial incentive for BP to dial up its petcoke production. The same goes for the Shell Refinery at Anacortes, Washington, which also produces petcoke that it now ships by rail to a smelter in Kitimat, British Columbia.

Dirty and carbon-heavy, petcoke is worrisome enough on its own. But encouraging petcoke exports adds another wrinkle because petcoke is a major byproduct of heavy Canadian crude oil and bitumen from the tar sands. In other words, encouraging petcoke is tantamount to encouraging using tar sands oil, the world’s most destructive and climate-damaging fuel, at Northwest refineries.

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  • It is possible to imagine that coal export terminals would enable refineries to ship petcoke with enough ease and profit that they would begin using larger and larger volumes of tar sands oil. Right now, the tar sands reach Northwest refineries in limited quantity by way of British Columbia’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, which Kinder Morgan hopes to nearly triple in size. In the future, it could arrive in columns of oil trains.

    The Northwest is facing down plans for huge coal export terminals, reckless schemes for pipeline expansions, and lately a blitzkrieg of crude oil-by-rail projects. It’s worth noting that these are not entirely separate debates—not by geography and not by fuel—and that the region’s energy future depends on understanding how closely they are connected.


    Credit to Lovel Pratt who drew my attention to the petcoke story at Gateway Pacific.