Michigan Lawmaker Wants Tar Sands Waste To Count As Renewable Energy

A mount of petcoke in Chicago in 2013. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
A mount of petcoke in Chicago in 2013. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST

A Michigan lawmaker wants to change his state’s renewable energy standard to include some rather unconventional fuels.

State Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R) is sponsoring a bill that would alter Michigan’s definition of renewable energy to include plastic waste and petroleum coke, a byproduct of tar sands refining. The aim of the bill is to “remove unnecessary burdens on the appropriate use of solid waste as a clean energy source.” Nesbitt told Midwest Energy News that he thinks burning things like plastic waste and petcoke for fuel would be a logical alternative to storing them in a landfill or having them pile up along rivers.

“I find it extremely troubling that some groups do not believe we should be encouraging or allowing for the development of utilizing our waste stream or preventing it from going to landfills,” he said. “If they want to support increased landfill use, that can be their position.”

Nesbitt is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that’s fought hard to repeal or weaken renewable energy standards like Michigan’s across the country. Most recently, ALEC, whose donors include billionaires Charles and David Koch, backed a bill that sought to weaken Kansas’s RPS.

Right now, Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard does include municipal solid waste and landfill gas, but not petroleum coke, which is a solid byproduct of tar sands oil refining. The legislation would make generating energy from petcoke through pyrolysis — an oxygen-free, high-heat way of decomposing materials — an acceptable form of renewable energy.

Petcoke is mostly carbon, so it’s even more harmful to the environment than other fossil fuels when burned. Per ton, petcoke emits 30 and 80 percent more carbon dioxide than coal when burned, depending on the quality of the coal.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has spoken out against the bill, saying burning “hazardous waste and calling it clean is downright indefensible.

“Unbelievable as it may seem, if this bill passes, burning petcoke — the dirtiest byproduct of the oil refining process — would qualify as clean, renewable energy,” Lisa Wozniak, Executive Director for the Michigan LCV, wrote in an op-ed. “The incineration process emits carcinogenic toxins and harmful air pollution that put the health of Michiganders and our air and water on the line.”

If the bill does become law, Michigan wouldn’t be the first state to include unconventional fuels in its RPS. West Virginia’s Alternative and Renewable Portfolio Standard, which has no mandatory minimum requirements for renewable energy, includes coal, natural gas and tire-derived fuels in its definition of alternative energy resources.

Petcoke has become a contentious issue in Michigan, especially in Detroit, where piles of petcoke were illegally stored last year. Those mounds have been removed, after the city’s mayor demanded Detroit Bulk Storage, the company in charge of storing the petcoke, clean it up from the riverfront. Though Detroit Bulk Storage applied again to store petcoke along the River Rouge in Michigan, which flows into Detroit, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said in May that it plans to reject the company’s application.

As the League of Conservation Voters points out, petcoke is already being used as a fuel source in Michigan’s coal-fired power plants, despite a 2009 study that found air pollution from coal plants is contributing to $1 billion in health care costs each year in Michigan.

Nesbitt’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the legislation.