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The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page, Farm Issues page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

In a recent Nationpiece, the wonderful Elizabeth Royte teased out the direct links between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the food supply. In short, extracting natural gas from rock formations by bombarding them with chemical-spiked fluid leaves behind fouled water-and that fouled water can make it into the crops and animals we eat.

But there's another, emerging food/fracking connection that few are aware of. US agriculture is highly reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized in a process fueled by natural gas. As more and more of the US natural gas supply comes from fracking, more and more of the nitrogen fertilizer farmers use will come from fracked natural gas. If Big Ag becomes hooked on cheap fracked gas to meet its fertilizer needs, then the fossil fuel industry will have gained a powerful ally in its effort to steamroll regulation and fight back opposition to fracking projects.

The potential for the growth of fracked nitrogen (known as "N") fertilizer is immense. During the 2000s, when conventional US natural gas sources were drying up and prices were spiking, the US fertilizer industry largely went offshore, moving operations to places like Trinidad and Tobago, where conventional natural gas was still relatively plentiful. (I told that story in a 2010 Grist piece.) This chart from a 2009 USDA doc illustrates how rapidly the US shifted away from domestically produced nitrogen in the 2000s.

Today, Trinidad and Tobago, an island nation off the coast of Venezuela and our leading source of imported N, is in the same position the US found itself in the early 2000s: Its supply of conventional, easy-to-harvest natural gas is wearing thin. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund estimated (PDF) that at current rates of extraction, the nation had sufficient natural gas reserves to last until just 2019.

Meanwhile, the fracking boom has made US natural gas suddenly abundant-and driven prices into the ground. A Btu of US natural gas now now costs 75 percent less than it did in 2008, the New York Times recently reported. Meanwhile, nitrogen fertilizer prices remain stubbornly high, propped up by strong demand driven by high crop prices. Those conditions-low input prices plus elevated prices for the final product-mean a potential profit bonanza for companies that use cheap US natural gas to make pricy N fertilizer for the booming US market.


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