Global Economics

US Exports to China Increasing Barrels of Petcoke, a Fuel Dirtier Than Coal


Reduced petroleum coke

Photograph by Adeel Halim/Bloomberg

Reduced petroleum coke

Even as China is investing more money than any other country in developing renewable electricity, its consumption of traditional fossil fuels is also rising steeply. Each year, roughly half the coal burned in the world is burned in China. In an effort to meet its fast-growing energy demands, China has become, in effect, simultaneously the greenest and the sootiest nation on earth.

But coal isn’t even the dirtiest fuel burned in China. According to ICIS, a petrochemical market research firm, China’s domestic production and imports of petroleum coke, or petcoke, both rose steeply in the past year.

Petcoke is a solid fossil fuel derived from the oil refinery coking process, and it’s burned in much the same way as coal. But its toll on both the local environment and global climate change is much greater. Burning petcoke releases about 10 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal (to generate the same amount of energy). And unrefined petcoke contains 50 percent to 300 percent more sulphur by volume than coal. Sulphur emissions contribute to PM 2.5 and other forms of air pollution that jeopardize human health.

China’s hunger for tapping new energy sources has coincided with the US’s boom in shale gas and shale oil production. With greater domestic sources of energy available, in 2011 the US became a net exporter of fuel for the first time in 20 years. Meanwhile America has been selling more of its dirty petcoke to China.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China imported just under 2 million barrels of petcoke from the US in 2008. By 2012, that figure had jumped to 26 million barrels. In the first nine months of 2013, China imported 28.5 million barrels of petcoke from the US – up more than 50 percent from the same period last year.

A recent article in the Chinese finance magazine Caixin summed up the ominous trend in headline: “As U.S. Refuses a Dirty Fuel, China Only Too Ready to Increase Imports: Petcoke is a refining byproduct that developed countries won’t dare to burn, but Chinese power plants can’t resist the savings.”

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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