India to ban imports of petcoke as concerns about air pollution grow

The Indian government will phase out imports of petroleum coke, or petcoke, though the use of petcoke within the country continues to be debated. An AP report found US oil refineries are exporting the product to India in huge amounts, unable to unload it at home.

Altaf Qadri/AP
A boy rides his bicycle through a thick cloud of smog, produced in part by factories burning petcoke in November 2017 in New Delhi. India is phasing out imports of petcoke shown to contain dangerous levels of sulfur.

India's government says it plans to phase out imports of a dirty fuel known as petroleum coke, or petcoke, after an Associated Press investigation found US oil refineries are exporting vast quantities of the product to India.

But when it comes to domestic use, the Indian government seems to be going in a different direction. The government this week argued in court that restrictions on petcoke around polluted New Delhi should be eased for certain low-impact industries. The move has infuriated environmentalists.

The AP investigation found the US sold about 20 times more petcoke to India last year than it did six years earlier after US refineries struggled to sell the product at home. In 2016, the US sent more than 8.8 million tons of petcoke to India, enough to fill the Empire State Building eight times over.

Petcoke is a bottom-of-the-barrel leftover from the refining of Canadian tar sands crude and other heavy oils. It's cheaper and burns hotter than coal. But laboratory tests on imported petcoke used near New Delhi found it contained 17 times more sulfur than the limit set for coal.

A day after the AP investigation was published, Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said the government was formulating a policy to end imports.

"We are planning to implement a system to stop imports and use home-produced petcoke for non-polluting sectors, such as cement production," Mr. Pradhan said on Saturday, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

He said fuel-hungry India consumes about 27.5 million tons of petcoke each year, nearly half of which is imported.

On Monday, the environment ministry argued in an affidavit against a ban on the use of petcoke and furnace oil in New Delhi and the surrounding states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan. The Supreme Court imposed the ban on the three states in October after environmentalist M.C. Mehta filed a petition. The fuels were already banned in the capital.

The ministry said it wanted certain industries such as cement manufacturing to be able to use a small amount of petcoke for about a year until they could come up with alternatives.

But Mr. Mehta on Wednesday said petcoke has a big impact.

"There is an environmental emergency with New Delhi as one of the most polluted cities in the world. Pollution levels go up by 50 percent if you are burning petcoke," he said. "Is this government a custodian of people's life and health or is it there to benefit some industrialists?"

Mehta said the government typically only takes action on the environment when forced by the Supreme Court, which in India takes an unusually proactive approach to environmental issues.

Polash Mukherjee, an environmentalist with the Center For Science and Environment, said the ban was important for ensuring clean air until industries move to cleaner fuels or install emission control measures.

New Delhi has been choking from air pollution in recent weeks. The air quality typically deteriorates at this time of year because the winds die down, people build street fires to keep warm and farmers burn fields of old crops.

The pollution has gotten so bad it has even interrupted India's favorite sport of cricket. This week the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team wore pollution masks and the bowlers complained they were short of breath. Play was stopped several times on Sunday as match officials debated whether to continue, eventually deciding they would.

The Supreme Court will hear the government's oral arguments on easing the petcoke ban next week.

In a separate case in October, the Supreme Court imposed a token fine on the environment ministry for not setting industrial emission standards for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in New Delhi and the surrounding states. The ministry has promised to comply with the court order by the end of the year.

Mehta, the environmentalist, said that whatever action India takes, the US should impose its own measures by banning exports of petcoke.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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