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India to phase out dirty fuel petcoke imports after AP investigation

To the statement of Associated Press that its investigation found that US oil refineries are exporting to India vast quantities of the dirty fuel, petroleum coke or petcoke which adds to the pollution containing 17 times more sulfur than the permitted limit, the government has responded that it plans to phase out petcoke import.

A day after the AP investigation was published, Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said "We are planning to implement a system to stop imports and use home-produced petcoke for non-polluting sectors, such as cement production," He said fuel-hungry India consumes about 25 million metric tons of petcoke each year, nearly half of which is imported.

But what has provoked the environmentalists is its approach to domestic use. It argued in court this week that restrictions on petcoke around polluted New Delhi should be eased for certain low-impact industries.

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.

Following a petition filed by an environmentalist M.C.Mehta, the Supreme Court had imposed a ban on the use of petcoke and furnace oil in three states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan in October. The environment ministry argued in an affidavit against the ban and sought that certain industries such as cement manufacturing be allowed to use a small amount of petcoke for about a year until they could come up with alternatives.

But Mehta took objection to the argument and pointed out that there is an environmental emergency with New Delhi which is one of the most polluted cities in the world. He asked, "Is this government a custodian of people's life and health or is it there to benefit some industrialists?"

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. Some players vomited. 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.

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