The Magazine

Steyer’s War on Carbon

Buying a Detroit Senate candidate.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By HENRY PAYNE
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Koch chose the Frye brothers’ company to store much of the 600,000 tons of pet coke coming out of Marathon Oil for shipping to utilities, steelmakers, cement producers, and other plants across Canada and the upper Midwest. In turn, the Fryes chose Detroit’s waterfront—with its excellent access to rail yards and deepwater loading—for its storage platform and potentially dozens of new jobs.

Yet the Fryes came under immediate assault from Peters, other Democrats like Rep. John Conyers, environmentalists, and a hysterical media. 

“A Black Mound of Canadian Oil Waste Is Rising Over Detroit,” screamed a New York Times headline. Even after driving the storage jobs out of state, the green cabal has continued to harass Bulk Storage as it seeks to woo the pet coke contract back to Michigan and its River Rouge site immediately south of Detroit. 

Activists piled into a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hearing in March to oppose Bulk Storage’s proposal. Peters demagogues that pet coke must be eliminated to protect “families and natural resources like the Great Lakes from the threat of contamination,” calling for a federal investigation into its potential menace. 

But the premise is absurd. Pet coke is virtually indistinguishable from coal. Millions of tons of these carbon-rich products course across the Great Lakes and America’s waterways every day for use in energy production and heavy industry. The EPA considers coke, like coal, a nontoxic material that poses no threat under American clean air and water laws, says Michigan’s DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel. The  
depa rtment has approved Bulk Storage’s pet coke operations for years (the Fryes previously stored pet coke from Koch’s Chicago operation, which is also in the greens’ crosshairs). The commodity is everywhere on Detroit’s industrialized river-front—from the metallurgical coke produced by DTE Energy that is used in U.S. Steel’s neighboring mill to Marathon’s coker, the huge refining unit at the tail end of oil processing. The cheap pet coke is burned in a downriver coal power plant, in Canadian power plants, and in other energy-intensive processes like Lafarge’s Alpena, Michigan, cement plant, the nation’s second-largest. 

Until they lost the storage business to Toledo’s Midwest Terminal, the Fryes handled the material in full compliance with state and federal regulations. Indeed, while Peters and his allies have scare-mongered about piles of supposedly toxic coke, the Fryes’ River Rouge dock is piled high with a similar coal product. Its destination? Detroit, where it is burned in GM’s Hamtramck plant to power the manufacturing of the greens’ favorite electric car, the Chevy Volt.

“This campaign is about ignorance,” says a frustrated Noel Frye.

It is also about stopping America’s import of Canadian oil, an event that would have devastating effects on jobs. Steyer’s political action committee, Next Gen Climate, says on its website that “Canada’s tar sands are a carbon bomb that threatens our land, our health and the future of our families. To protect our environment and our communities, we must keep tar sands in the ground.”

Rep. Peters’s alliance with Steyer against oil sands threatens the 155 good-paying refinery jobs that Marathon’s coker expansion brought to Detroit, the $230 million in cumulative tax revenue that the company estimates oil sands would bring to the congressman’s bankrupt city by 2030—and Marathon’s rumored plans to build a second Canadian oil-processing coker that promises thousands more construction jobs.

Peters’s support of Steyer’s radical agenda flies in the face of public opinion polls showing Michigan voters support the Keystone pipeline. It also flies in the face of claims that Democrats support the working man.

“Because of politics, the administration fails to stand up for working people and the men and women we represent,” wrote Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) general president Terry O’Sullivan in April. His members could gain hundreds of trades jobs from Keystone’s construction. “Steyer has amplified the rhetoric of the environmental fringe aimed at tearing down the value of Americans who build things with their hands.”

Detroit’s waterfront is made for manufacturing and the transport of raw materials like coal and pet coke. To grow post-bankruptcy, the city must make the most of that resource. Never mind. Detroit’s revival is less important to Michigan’s would-be Democratic senator and his wealthy backers than their expansive campaign to shut down American coal plants and oil sands exploitation under the alarmist banner of global warming. 

Henry Payne is the Detroit News auto critic and a syndicated political cartoonist.

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