PET Coal – India’s Pollution Scandal
India’s Menacing Problem
Pet coke has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. The topic has been courting controversy in India since the last few months with opinionated differences amongst corporate business houses, environmentalists and the apex court in the country. Just a few days back, the Supreme Court in India passed a major judgment putting a ban on the use of pet coke and furnace oil within the confines of the national capital as well as a few other states. This decision took a dramatic turn again on December 1, 2017, when the apex court announced an amendment lifting this ban in favor of the cement industry. Now, one has to wonder what this entire debacle is about, right?
Pet coke and pollution are synonymous with each other. Petroleum coke or pet coke as its generally called is a by-product of the oil refining process. It consists mostly of elemental carbon with variable amounts of heavy metals and organic compounds. Now, pet coke has many uses ranging from the production of aluminum, steel, and even batteries. Lower grade pet coke like the one India imports from the USA, comes with high concentration of sulfur which is used in cement kilns and coal-fired power plants.
The tar sands region in Canada happens to be the biggest major producer of pet coke in recent years. Pet coke is the final by-product that is obtained whilst refining crude oil. By estimates, US refineries produce up to 4000-7000 tons of pet coke on a daily basis. In 2012 alone, the United States exported a whopping 184 million barrels (33 million metric tonnes) of pet coke. Most of these purchasers were developing countries especially countries like India and China. The growing energy needs in countries like India is causing a surge in the import of Pet Coke. In 2016 alone, the US had sent more than 8 million pet coke to India making it the second largest consumer after China.
Pet coke and pollution in India
The demand for pet coke in India started rising in recent years after the prices for the substance saw a downward trajectory since 2010. The significant drop in prices ($ 107 per tonne) by 2016 combined with an increase in the clean energy cess (Re 400 per tonne) being levied on coal led businesses to look for better alternatives. To top it all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rollout of India’s biggest tax overhaul in decades is encouraging the use of petroleum coke. Pet coke is taxed at 18% under the new tax system implemented nationwide while cleaner natural gas is being subject to local levies that add as much as 30% to the overall cost. The current tax structure is acting more as a deterrent for natural gas whilst promoting the use of dirtier fuels.
Pet coke is a high polluting fuel which is largely used by cement factories, paper mills, brick kilns, dyeing units etc and pet coke being burned in factories has been causing a serious problem around the capital region of the country. Today, New Delhi is touted as one of the world’s most polluted places on earth. Lab tests done by Environment Pollution Control Authority found that imported pet coke used in factories contains 17 times more sulfur than the limit set for coal and a whopping 1380 times more than the set amount for diesel. Delhi’s air quality has worsened significantly since the last decade which has now almost reached a fever point. The air quality has worsened this current winter season. Vehicle and industrial emissions, as well as burning of crop stubble in and around the Delhi, has lead to a spike in air pollutants.
Indians are pummeled by pollution today and are already at risk of strokes, heart diseases, lung cancers and various other ailments. The pollution in Delhi skyrocketed to an all-time high, with deadly levels of carcinogenic pollutants that is roughly 10 times the reading in Beijing. A toxic haze and smog have enveloped within the capital city and its surrounding areas with schools being shut down due to the bad quality of air, traffic coming to a standstill due to poor visibility and residents are scurrying off to buy air purifiers and mask for themselves and their loved ones. Experts have already called this situation a major public health emergency, the worst one to hit the country in recent times.
The decision of Supreme Court with regards to banning pet coke is certainly a good initiative in the right direction but the recent amendment in the verdict has brought forth some questions again. While the decision seems like a weighted one considering the fact that not all industries are being allowed to make use of pet coke for their respective businesses while also considering the livelihood of the people engaged in these small and medium scale industries. The initial ban was made effective in 34 industries who make use of pet coke and furnace oil but the reversal was made effective for the cement and limestone industry only. The Supreme Court has also given the nod to the Graded Responsibility Action Plan (GRAP) which would be working in conjunction with the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) and will be responsible for a number of measures including the
- Fixing emission standards for sulfur and nitrogen oxide
- closing down of hot mix plants, brick kilns, dyeing units,
- intensifying the public transport services,
- increasing the frequency of mechanized cleaning and a sprinkling of water on the roads to curb pollution and other such significant measures.
While these measures may just prove to be enough in the short run, there is a however still a need for more collective measures if we are to protect our environment for the present as well as our future generations.