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Spotlight: Is ‘petcoke’ the hidden villain in Delhi’s pollution crisis?

Delhi’s killer smog has been blamed on many things, but rarely on highly polluting industrial fuels like petcoke. India is the world’s biggest importer of this dirtiest of fuels, banned in most countries. Last month, the Supreme Court banned it in the NCR; but given the big players involved, who will ensure the ban’s implemented?

US exports of tar sands waste are fuelling Delhi’s air pollution crisis

India has emerged as the world’s largest importer of petroleum coke, an oil byproduct that is now a major cause of pollution in the capital

Aditi Roy Ghatak and Karl Mathiesen, Climate Change News

Come winter and the Indian capital, New Delhi, is preparing to once again struggle beneath the noxious fumes that have become a perennial crisis.

Eight Delhiites die each day from the city’s bad air. In response, the regional government has made efforts to tackle pollution from coal plants and tailpipe exhaust. But any benefits these policies might produce are threatened by skyrocketing imports of a fuel more polluting than coal or diesel.

Petroleum coke – known as petcoke – is a high-carbon residue produced during the refinement of heavy oils. In its raw form, the high-carbon fuel can be used as a cheap substitute for coal.

Delhi’s environmental authorities say petcoke, cut into coal power station feeds around the capital, is now one of the major sources of smog in the city.

In many parts of the world, petcoke is restricted because of its toxicity. In India however, the fuel is unregulated and burned freely. In this regulatory void, demand has soared, rising 23% a year for the last five years. The country imported 20 times more petcoke in 2016 than it did in 2011.

SC bans dirty pet-coke, furnace oil in Haryana, Rajasthan, UP
Down to Earth

Delhi is in a race against time. The Supreme Court has ordered the use of petcoke to end but the government has failed to ban or regulate the fuel. Activists and public health officials are desperate to convince politicians to act before winter’s still, stagnant weather conditions begin to pool smog above the capital.

When burned, petcoke emits 5-10% more climate change-causing CO2 than coal. But its true filthiness is revealed in the toxic smog it creates. The key air pollution-causing contaminant is sulphur, which creates oxide gases and particles, both of which are harmful to human health.

In Delhi, a (relatively lax) regulation limits sulphur in coal to 4,000 parts per million. The National Capital Territory’s environmental agency (EPCA) says petcoke being burned around the capital contains sulphur up to 72,000ppm. Petcoke emissions also contain significant amounts of toxic heavy metals – particularly vanadium, nickel and iron.

Petcoke’s primary use in India is in cement-making plants, where the process limits pollution. But when it is used in the coal power stations, the pollutants emerge unadulterated.

In February, India’s Supreme Court released a finding that called the sulphur content in petcoke “extremely high” and said the fuel was a “major cause of pollution in Delhi”. The court directed the national government to either ban petcoke’s use in power generation outright or place restrictions on the sulphur content, which would be a de facto ban.

So far, no action has been taken. The ministry of environment has asked for more time. The court has given the government a final deadline of 24 October to come up with a plan.

This is a problem that begins, in part, in the tar pits of Alberta and the refineries of the US Gulf coast. India produces its own petcoke. But local refineries can’t keep up with demand and the country has emerged from nowhere to become the largest importer of petcoke on earth.

In 2016, 87% of India’s overseas petcoke came from the US, the world’s largest producer. Its use in US power generation has plummeted due to heavy restrictions. As a result, US refiners and traders are looking to markets with looser regulation and, say environmental campaigners at both ends of the supply chain, fuelling India’s airborne public health crisis.

Until 2014, China was the biggest buyer of US petcoke. But Asia’s largest economy has been on a political journey with air pollution. Sulphur restrictions, brought in in 2016, economic downturn and local bans on new power plants combined to stifle US petcoke’s access to the far east powerhouse. Between 2013 and 2014, the trade was cut in half. (Japan also remains a stalwart consumer of US petcoke.)

“India has become the dumping ground of petcoke from countries like USA and China,” Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment, told the Economic Times in February. Narain is not only pushing for a domestic ban on petcoke’s use in power plants but an import ban as well.

Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International, said much of the US petcoke was left over from the refinement of heavy oil from Canada’s tar sands. Environmental restrictions in the US prevent it from being burned in most power stations, unless they are fitted with pollution scrubbing technology.

“The US refiners have invested in this heavy oil refining strategy in order to take advantage of the cheap dirty feed stock from Canada,” he told Climate Home. “Then this waste product is dumped into markets that will accept it. It’s a perfect example of the industry maximising its profits while maximising its pollution.”

It is uncertain how much petcoke is being burned around Delhi, according to an EPCA report, as refiners do not collect data on how much is being sold into the capital territory. It is also uncertain what proportion comes from the US, as opposed to domestic refineries. During site visits, however, EPCA inspectors found industries were using imported product.

The trade within India is controlled by some of the biggest, most influential and least transparent corporations in the country, including Adani Enterprises. Adani’s website says it sources petcoke from the US.

Climate Home contacted some of the largest US petcoke exporters. None returned emails except for Ahmed Jama, CEO and president of Florida-based PermuTrade.

“I cannot speak for other companies,” he said. “But I do know petcoke is being sold into the power generation industry and steel industry [in India].”

PermuTrade is a relatively small fish. Jama said his company transports between 0.6Mt and 1.2Mt of petcoke every year, 75% of which goes to the cement industry in India. According to Jacobs Consultancy, Koch Carbon trades more than 20Mt globally every year. Oxbow, another company owned by the Koch brothers, also ranks among the largest global traders.

Jama said his company sells only to cement plants to ensure the “environment is protected”. “We could make a lot more money selling petcoke to many other industries, like the power generation industry and steel industry but we are not all about the money,” he said, adding that an India-wide ban on petcoke “might not be the greatest idea”.

“Petcoke should be banned or limited for captive power plants but not for cement plants. There should be clear sulphur emission thresholds in place for companies to comply with and be held accountable to. If petcoke is cut, the government will need to provide cheap coal or they won’t have power,” said Jama.

In fact, environment authorities are not pursuing a ban on use in cement. But they are trying to control power plant emissions before Delhi again disappears beneath the smog of industry.

India is overtaking China as the biggest emitter of this deadly air pollutant
This week, air pollution forced some 4,000 schools to close in New Delhi, as India’s capital suffers through an air quality nightmare. Now, here’s more bad news on the pollution front: the country is passing China as the world’s biggest emitter of deadly man-made sulfur dioxide (SO2). According to a University of Maryland-led study published in Nature on Thursday (Nov. 9), China’s SO2 emissions have fallen 75% since 2007, while India’s emissions have increased 50% in the same period. That puts India on track to overtake China, the world’s largest SO2 emitter since 2005—if it hasn’t already.

SC bans dirty pet-coke, furnace oil in Haryana, Rajasthan, UP
Down to Earth
In a landmark ruling today the Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta banned the use of dirty furnace oil and pet-coke in Harayana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. This order has come in response to the findings and recommendations of the Environment Protection (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) that has exposed widespread use of these fuels in industrial sectors of NCR and found very high sulphur levels in these fuels, ranging from over 20,000 PPM in furnace oil to over 64,000 PPM in pet-coke. Use of these fuels was banned in Delhi way back in 1996. Furnace oil and pet-coke are the dirtiest by-products and residual fraction from the refinery process. (Related: SC demands Centre’s response on implementation of emission norms for coal power plants)

How coal plants will avoid complying with new emission norms
Down to Earth
The coal-based power sector is set to avoid complying with new emission norms, with active help from the Ministry of Power and Central Electricity Authority, that will come in effect in December 2017. These new norms were enacted by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in December 2015 in view of the sector’s massive contribution to air pollution and its huge water withdrawal. Non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) calls it a classic case of one ministry proposing and another disposing.

Centre has the powers to tackle Delhi’s pollution crisis, but it is passing the buck
Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Scroll.in
In Delhi, the central government has decided to act as a coordinator rather than a leader in tackling the pollution crisis. On November 9, as severe smog precipitated a public health emergency in the city, the environment ministry constituted a “high level committee to propose and monitor solutions to air pollution”. The next day, it called a meeting of officials from Delhi and neighbouring states and told them to “strictly implement” existing regulations and the Supreme Court’s orders on tackling air pollution. It could have done much more. “Under the Environment Protection Act, the central government has complete executive powers to do whatever it deems necessary to stop environmental pollution,” said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta.

Avoiding Airpocalypse: It’s Time to Move Beyond Quick Fixes and Tackle the Root Cause of Crisis

Ashish Kothari
To get to any meaningful solution, one needs to look at root causes of a situation all Indian cities are facing or will face in the near future. The immediate causes of the ‘airpocalypse’ (an apt term coined by Greenpeace India) in Delhi are its burgeoning vehicular population, construction dust, smoke from the burning of crop residues in nearby states, dust from Rajasthan’s desert, and thermal power stations. Some of these are common to most Indian cities. But these are symptoms of something deeper – a short-sighted approach to development.

How many deaths will it take for India’s environment minister to admit air pollution is a killer?
Menaka Rao, Scroll.in
Even as air pollution continues to smother Delhi – air quality moved from “severe” to “ very poor” on Wednesday – Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan has downplayed its role in causing severe health problems, even deaths. In comments to news organisations, Harsh Vardhan has repeatedly said that air pollution can cause illness and distress in people who already have respiratory problems. He has also called for India-centric scientific studies to estimate the effects of air pollution on people living in India. What the minister has ignored is that air pollution can kill, even if it kills slowly, and that there is plenty of scientific data to show its role in premature deaths.

Why North India’s air won’t get cleaner
Chaitanya Mallapur, IndiaSpend
India wants more electricity and needs more power plants to get it, but the government is not enforcing the pollution standards it needs to on these plants. The result is that north India’s air is becoming more toxic with little hope for improvement unless the government cracks down on polluting power plants and enforces a variety of other pollution-control measures. India’s sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions–due to burning of coal–increased 50% while China’s emissions fell 75% since 2007, according to a study by the University of Maryland and the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released on November 9, 2017.

The aim is pollution control, not theatre: Sunita Narain
The Hindu
“Please understand that the odd-even (car scheme) and the shutting of schools are all emergency actions. Last year, when we had a crisis like this in November, we had gone to court and said that there are two ways in which governments all over the world deal with this. One is that they have an emergency response, which is that when things are so bad they ask, ‘what do we do?’ Last year, nobody knew what to do; there was a sort of helplessness. And two, what we said (to the court) was that emergency plans are not substitutes for long-term measures. We need both because till you have your long-term measures kicking in, we must have a response.”


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