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Peters uses Keystone XL vote to push for petroleum coke investigation

Michigan Senator Gary Peters.
U.S. Representative Gary Peters

The U.S. House voted Wednesday to sidestep President Obama, and authorize the first leg of a controversial pipeline project carrying tar sands oil to the US from Canada.

Detroit Congressman Gary Peters used the opportunity to push for more scrutiny of petroleum coke — a byproduct of tar sands refining that’s already showing up in Detroit.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada tar through the U.S. to Gulf Coast refineries. Much of the debate around importing that oil into the U.S. for refining has centered around Keystone.

But plenty of tar sands oil is already flowing to the U.S. — including the Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit.

That’s resulted in a byproduct called petroleum coke, or “pet coke,” piling up along the Detroit River.

There’s some disagreement about exactly how dangerousthe stuff is. But Peters says there’s a “growing body of evidence that we need to consider health consequences and environmental impact” of pet coke in environmental decision making.

“We already know the impact of tar sands oil, because we’re experiencing it on the Detroit River right now,” Peters says. “And it is a potential environmental risk that needs to be assessed, and needs to be studied, and we need to know what we’re dealing with.”

State environmental officials have said that pet coke isn’t dangerous in itself. But they’ve required the company responsible for storing the pet coke to submit plans about how it will handle possible air and water contamination issues.

Peters says the federal government should investigate the health and environmental impacts of pet coke, too.

He introduced an amendment that would have required such a probe as part of the larger, Republican-sponsored Keystone XL bill. The amendment was shot down before the bill was eventually passed.

Keystone XL’s future remains uncertain. This House bill that would sidestep the White House by nullifying the requirement for a Presidential permit (usually needed in cases of transnational infrastructure projects) isn’t likely to go anywhere in the Senate, and President Obama has vowed to veto it anyway.

Peters says it’s a “messaging bill” that House Republicans are pushing to make a point. The GOP supports Keystone XL as a project that would create jobs, and help secure U.S. energy needs.

Most Democrats, like Peters, disagree. And Peters says he brought up the pet coke issue to point out that there are “other implications to tar sands oil" that haven't been considered.

“As this tar sands oil comes into the United States, you’re going to see these piles of pet coke in other cities all across America,” Peters says.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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