Oil extracted from the tar sands of Canada has contributed to booming production among American refineries, but it also has created a messy legacy: Ton upon ton of a filthy byproduct called petroleum coke. U.S. utilities don’t want it as an energy source because of its extremely high sulfur content, leaving refineries with one option – getting rid of it – because stockpiling had stirred community outcries near Midwest refineries four years ago. Tammy Webber, a Chicago-based reporter with the environmental beat team, wondered: If refineries couldn’t offload the substance to coal plants and other utilities in the U.S., what were they doing with it?
Through a year’s worth of detective work, Webber and her beat team colleague in New Delhi, Katy Daigle, traced the shadowy network of U.S. exporters and overseas customers that trade in the bottom-of-the-barrel leftovers from the oil refining process. What they found was that India had supplanted China as the leading destination of “petcoke” from the U.S., the world’s leading exporter. It imported enough of the dirty fuel in 2016 to fill the Empire State building eight times. Moreover, Indian officials had no idea the amount of petcoke flowing into the country was 20 times more than just six years before. Nor did they know how it was being used in a country already choking on some of the world’s dirtiest air.
When Webber originally raised the story possibility to beat team editor Tim Reiterman, the two started combing through U.S. import-export data for clues about where the petroleum coke from U.S. refineries was going. What stood out was the trade with India, especially because the country’s dramatically poor air quality was well known: “So we thought we had the makings of a pretty good story,” he said, “about what the critics said was the U.S. exporting pollution.”
Webber and Daigle sought out updated figures and trends on petcoke exports and imports. They painstakingly researched the industry. The team wanted to know who was sending petcoke overseas and who was bringing it to power plants and factories in India. This was not part of the public record, so Webber went back to her sources and finally got data collected by private companies. Some of the biggest traders were connected to the politically conservative Koch family, which has funded efforts aimed at undermining climate science.
Webber called more than a dozen companies that were exporting the petcoke, while Daigle reached out to 30 Indian companies importing it. None wanted to talk, but Daigle was able to find other companies in India using petcoke and interviewed residents in Delhi and industrialized Moradabad affected by the filthy air. Petcoke is not the only reason for the country’s smog-filled air, but experts say it is making a bad situation worse. “We should not become the dust bin of the rest of the world,” said Sunita Narain, a member of India's court-appointed Environmental Pollution Control Authority, whose lab tests obtained by Daigle found petcoke was far dirtier than coal.
The story was told in all formats and the key contributors included: photographers Vaishnavee Sharma and Altaf Qadri; video journalists Luke Sheridan, Shonal Ganguly and Teresa Crawford; graphic artist Maureen Linke; video graphic producers Panaglotis Mouzakis and Heidi Morrow; and the Central Region’s Shawn Chen, who pulled together all the elements for an engaging APNews hub.
Within 24 hours of the story hitting the wire, India’s government announced it would phase out imports of petcoke.
The package played prominently on news websites across the world – including the New York Times, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Houston Chronicle, ABC. CNBC, Fox, The Times of India, Taiwan News and NZ Herald.com – and was the AP’s most engaged story online the morning it was published.
Within 24 hours of the story hitting the wire, India’s government announced it would phase out imports of the cheap but excessively dirty fuel and had begun working on a policy to end the practice.
For revealing the secretive transport of petroleum coke from the U.S. to one of the world’s most polluted countries, and for drawing an immediate reaction from the government of India, Webber and Daigle win this week’s $500 Beat of the Week.