Page 22 - Respond 2018 Magazine
P. 22


       US exports of tar sands

       waste are fuelling Delhi’s

       air pollution crisis

       By Aditi Roy Ghatak and Karl Mathiesen

       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

       Come winter and the Indian capital, New Delhi, is preparing   environmental agency (EPCA) says petcoke being burned
       to once again struggle beneath the noxious fumes that have   around the capital contains sulphur up to 72,000ppm.
       become a perennial crisis.                           Petcoke emissions also contain significant amounts of toxic
                                                            heavy metals – particularly vanadium, nickel and iron.
       Eight Delhiites die each day from the city’s bad air. In
       response, the regional government has made efforts to   Petcoke’s primary use in India is in cement-making plants,
       tackle pollution from coal plants and tailpipe exhaust. But   where the process limits pollution. But when it is used in the
       any benefits these policies might produce are threatened   coal power stations, the pollutants emerge unadulterated.
       by skyrocketing imports of a fuel more polluting than coal
       or diesel.                                           In February, India’s Supreme Court released a finding that
                                                            called the sulphur content in petcoke “extremely high”
       Petroleum coke – known as petcoke – is a high-carbon   and said the fuel was a “major cause of pollution in Delhi”.
       residue produced during the refinement of heavy oils. In   The court directed the national government to either
       its raw form, the high-carbon fuel can be used as a cheap   ban petcoke’s use in power generation outright or place
       substitute for coal.                                 restrictions on the sulphur content, which would be a de
                                                            facto ban.
       Delhi’s environmental authorities say petcoke, cut into coal
       power station feeds around the capital, is now one of the   So far, no action has been taken. The ministry of
       major sources of smog in the city.                   environment has asked for more time. The court has given
                                                            the government a final deadline of 24 October to come up
       In many parts of the world, petcoke is restricted because   with a plan.
       of its toxicity. In India however, the fuel is unregulated
       and burned freely. In this regulatory void, demand has   This is a problem that begins, in part, in the tar pits of
       soared, rising 23% a year for the last five years. The country   Alberta and the refineries of the US Gulf coast. India
       imported 20 times more petcoke in 2016 than it did in 2011.  produces its own petcoke. But local refineries can’t keep up
                                                            with demand and the country has emerged from nowhere to
       Delhi is in a race against time. The Supreme Court has   become the largest importer of petcoke on earth.
       ordered the use of petcoke to end but the government has
       failed to ban or regulate the fuel. Activists and public health   In 2016, 87% of India’s overseas petcoke came from the
       officials are desperate to convince politicians to act before   US, the world’s largest producer. Its use in US power
       winter’s still, stagnant weather conditions begin to pool   generation has plummeted due to heavy restrictions. As a
       smog above the capital.                              result, US refiners and traders are looking to markets with
                                                            looser regulation and, say environmental campaigners
       When burned, petcoke emits 5-10% more climate change-  at both ends of the supply chain, fuelling India’s airborne
       causing CO2 than coal. But its true filthiness is revealed   public health crisis.
       in the toxic smog it creates. The key air pollution-causing
       contaminant is sulphur, which creates oxide gases and   Until 2014, China was the biggest buyer of US petcoke. But
       particles, both of which are harmful to human health.  Asia’s largest economy has been on a political journey with air
                                                            pollution. Sulphur restrictions, brought in in 2016, economic
       In Delhi, a (relatively lax) regulation limits sulphur in coal   downturn and local bans on new power plants combined
       to 4,000 parts per million. The National Capital Territory’s   to stifle US petcoke’s access to the far east powerhouse.
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