Koch Brothers Use Detroit as a Dumping Ground

Monday, May 20, 2013
Petroleum coke on the Detroit River (photo: Nick Brancaccio, Windsor Star)

Not bothering to obtain the legally required permits, since November a company owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch has been dumping oil refinery waste along the banks of the Detroit River in the city of the same name, creating a three-story-tall pile of black, smelly hydrocarbon.


The waste is petroleum coke, or petcoke, a waste byproduct of refining very heavy oil. In Detroit's case, the petcoke comes from a refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum (2012 revenue: $82.2 billion), which began refining oil from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, in November 2012. The initial refining process of “coking” separates the oil from tar-like bitumen, but also yields petcoke. The Marathon refinery in Detroit processes 28,000 barrels a day of oil sands bitumen.


Called by one analyst the “coal hiding in the tar sands,” petcoke looks and burns like coal, but has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal. Used as fuel in certain industrial applications or simply to generate electricity, petcoke yields about 53.6% more CO2 than burning the same amount of coal. In light of petcoke's potential contribution to global warming, it may not be used as fuel in the U.S. or Canada—which is where the Koch family steps in.


The company that actually owns the petcoke that is befouling the Detroit waterfront is Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries (annual revenues: $115 billion), the company Charles and David Koch inherited from their father. Koch Carbon sells petcoke worldwide, to countries like China, India, Mexico and others that burn it to generate electricity and hasten global warming. It is useful to recall that the Koch brothers have spent literally millions of dollars bankrolling the denial of climate change.


And one of the world’s largest dealers of petcoke is the Oxbow Corporation (annual revenues: $3.7 billion), which sells about 11 million tons a year, and is owned by William I. Koch, yet another fortunate son of Fred Chase Koch, the innovative oil refiner who founded Koch Industries in 1940.


After an outcry on both sides of the Detroit River—which borders Canada—state and federal environmental officials tested the petcoke and determined that it does not pose a serious health threat. The City of Detroit—bankrupt and under the financial control of an unelected financial czar appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder—apparently has little stomach for a fight, and has decided not to fine or otherwise punish the unlawful dumping of the petcoke.


The company holding the petcoke for Koch Carbon is applying for the permits it should have obtained last fall, and a public hearing will be held. There may be a big problem, however, lurking in the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for petcoke issued by Marathon. The Marathon MSDS for petcoke advises those holding petcoke to “Store in properly closed containers that are appropriately labeled and in a cool well-ventilated area.” Outdoor storage under the sun and stars would not qualify.

-Matt Bewig


To Lean More:

A Black Mound of Canadian Oil Waste Is Rising Over Detroit (by Ian Austen, New York Times)

Detroit Confirms Permits Sought for Open storage of Petcoke on Riverfront (by Dave Battagello, Windsor Star)

New Tests by DEQ Say Petroleum Coke Mounds near Detroit River no Threat (by Jim Lynch, Detroit News)

Material Safety Data Sheet: Petroleum Coke (Marathon Petroleum)

Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands (by Lorne Stockman, Oil Change International)


Ruth Germain 11 years ago
For more information on pet coke in Detroit, see Facebook page Petroleum Coke Awareness. It contains all media articles and many photos of fugitive dust clouds wafting across the Detroit River into Canada.
David 11 years ago
All this about global warming. But doesn't it embarrass you that the globe is not warming?

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