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Hunger For Natural Gas

The era of cheap natural gas, like that of cheap oil, is ending. We have barely begun to assess the drastic, worldwide changes that will ensue.

Two Gulf hurricanes and the approaching winter in the Northern Hemisphere have kept natural gas futures hovering near all-time highs. But with the accelerating depletion of reserves in North America, the intermittent gas crises we've been seeing since 2001 will start coming thicker and faster, finally merging into an era of permanent scarcity.

A chronic gap between supply and demand would mean plenty of hardship in the United States and Europe, which have come to rely on natural gas not only for heat, but increasingly for electricity generation and manufacturing. But the future looks even more grim in the global South, where the maintenance of human life itself has come to depend on the steady and reliable supply of natural gas that's needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer for food production.

Turn off the gas, and a lot of American families would have a hard time cooking dinner -- but a lot of families in places like Nepal and Guatemala would have nothing to cook.

Nitrogen and human existence

Crop plants assemble carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen into proteins that are essential both to plant growth and to the diets of humans and other animals. Of those four elements, nitrogen is the one that's too often in short supply. If you see yellowish, stunted crops, whether they're in an Indiana cornfield or an Indonesian rice paddy, it's likely that you can blame it on a lack of nitrogen.

A world of 6.4 billion people, on the way to 9 billion or more, needs more protein than the planet's croplands can generate from biologically provided nitrogen. Our species has become as physically dependent on industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer as it is on soil, sunshine and water. And that means we're hooked on natural gas.

Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba and author of the 2004 book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production , has demonstrated the global food system's startling degree of dependence on nitrogen fertilization. Using simple math -- the kind you can do in your head if there's no calculator handy -- Smil showed that 40 percent of the protein in human bodies, planet-wide, would not exist without the application of synthetic nitrogen to crops during most of the 20th century.

That means that without the use of industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer, about 2.5 billion people out of today's world population of 6.2 billion simply could never have existed.

If farming depended solely on naturally occurring and recycled nitrogen fertility, the planet's cropped acreage could feed only about 50 percent of the human population at today's improved nutrition levels, according to Smil. But absolute dependence on synthetic nitrogen is geographically lopsided -- it's largely in countries with a high human-cropland ratio that survival hinges on nitrogen fertilizer. This includes India, Indonesia, and China, where four in 10 human beings on Earth reside.

In contrast, those countries lucky enough to have ample cropland and relatively low population density could survive on far less synthetic nitrogen than they currently use.

The nation that ranks as the world's third biggest nitrogen fertilizer consumer could, conceivably, get by without the stuff. If that country, the United States, were to moderate its meat consumption, raise all livestock on pasture and rangeland instead of nitrogen-wasting grains, rely more on legume crops (plants like beans and alfalfa that obtain nitrogen from the air with the help of bacteria), curb waste and cut food exports, it could maintain its food supply without using any synthetic nitrogen at all, according to Smil's calculations.

The momentum of past population growth is expected to add two to four billion people to the world's population by 2050, even with concerted efforts to rein in growth. Almost all of the increase will occur in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. That will double the demand for nitrogen fertilizer in those regions, and by that time, says Smil, 60 percent of their inhabitants will depend existentially (in the literal sense, not the philosophical one) on natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizer.

Danger: Flammable

Ironically, in that vast volume between the earth's surface and the atmosphere's upper limits, nitrogen is the most abundant element. We're continuously bathed in nitrogen gas, which makes up 78 percent of the air we breathe. But in the air, nitrogen atoms are paired up, each atom linked to another by an extremely tight molecular bond. Those molecules can't be used by living organisms unless that bond is broken, and only a small number of single-celled species have developed a means to do that biologically.

To pry nitrogen atoms apart chemically requires intense energy; it happens, for example, around a bolt of lightning. So it was not until 1909 that humans developed an industrial-scale method, called the Haber-Bosch process after its German inventors, to reassemble nitrogen atoms into another molecule, ammonia, that is usable by crop plants.

The two essential inputs to the Haber-Bosch process are air, which is free, and natural gas, which is expensive and becoming more so. Therefore, to extend Vaclav Smil's reasoning, 40 percent (soon to be 60 percent) of the Earth's inhabitants owe their survival to natural gas, a non-renewable fossil fuel. And if Julian Darley is right, a species that can't survive without natural gas is a species in big trouble.

Darley is author of the 2004 book, "High Noon for Natural Gas," in which he argues that the era of cheap and plentiful gas, like that of cheap oil, is coming to a close. Humans began tapping the Earth's deposits of oil and natural gas a little over a century ago. We've been exhausting the planet's oil reserves more quickly than gas reserves, because oil is easier to pump, transport and use. The planet's gas endowment will last longer, but the world is now using more each year than is being discovered -- an ominous sign.

Accelerated consumption across the globe, says Darley, will continue to drive up natural gas prices, deplete reserves, and trigger chronic shortages. In a world where growing energy demand has begun to run up against environmental limits, gas is almost too good to be true, and, it seems, too good to leave in the ground. For instance:

  • Countries trying to meet the greenhouse emissions limits set by the Kyoto Protocol are rapidly building natural gas-fired power plants, which emit much less carbon dioxide than do coal plants. Even in the United States, the world's number-one Kyoto deadbeat, most newly built power plants are gas-fueled, even as our domestic gas reserves dwindle.
  • In response to criticism of its heavy coal burning, China intends to triple or quadruple its use of natural gas for power generation in the coming decade.
  • The petroleum industry is pushing hard to build large numbers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers, along with the requisite high-tech port facilities in the major producing and consuming nations. That will make it easier for a big energy-using nation like the U.S. to suck not only from gas pipelines on its own continent but from wells almost anywhere on the planet, as we currently do to feed our oil habit.
  • Building and operating a global LNG system will require vast amounts of energy -- much of it supplied by gas, of course. To produce the power required to haul liquefied gas across oceans while keeping it cooled to about -260 degrees Fahrenheit, LNG tankers draw on their own cargo. And an explosion at a LNG terminal could produce a fireball a mile wide -- qualifying LNG as a potential WMD.
  • The process of extracting oil from sands in the Canadian province of Alberta -- often looked to as a key new resource in a "safe" part of the world -- requires natural gas, and a lot of it. Darley predicts that if the oil sands are to satisfy even one-eighth of North America's demand, they will have to absorb a quarter to a half of Canada's natural gas production!
  • Hydrogen is often hailed as a fuel of the future, but today, most hydrogen is manufactured from -- what else? -- natural gas. Hydrogen could be generated by, say, using solar energy to split water molecules, but don't count that happening on a large scale as long as gas is available. President Bush's well-hyped 2003 FreedomCar initiative relied mostly on gas-derived hydrogen.

Not everyone is as pessimistic about natural gas as is Darley. The U.S. Department of Energy, as usual, paints a much rosier picture of potential gas reserves. Vaclav Smil appears to expect future gas availability to end up somewhere between what Darley and the DOE predict. But on one point there seems to be universal agreement: Consumption of the world's natural gas will continue to accelerate, and in the rush, gas could prove even more volatile than oil, politically and economically as well as chemically.

The timetable for peak gas or plateauing natural gas production and an eventual decline is much harder to forecast it is for oil. But a perfect storm of long-term forces appears to be blowing demand in only one direction -- up -- and the greatest access to such a hard-to-transport, hard-to-store resource will likely go to those players with the most money and the strongest armies.

Why armies? Because the world's remaining natural gas reserves lie mostly in the Mideast, Central Asia and Russia, almost guaranteeing that a century of conflict and chaos lies ahead.

The World's Natural Gas Reserves
Natural gas reserves of the top 10 countries.

The slice of the pie labeled "Rest of World" includes a number of small countries, many of them in Africa. Their gas reserves could sponsor decades of domestic fertilizer production. But, as people from Kirkuk to Caracas to the Niger Delta can tell you, fossil fuel reserves also can attract a lot of unwelcome attention from more powerful, energy-hungry nations.

Empty Stomachs, Full Jacuzzis

As natural gas becomes both more portable and more essential to food production in much of the world, impoverished farmers in Bangladesh and Egypt will find themselves bidding for it against Kansas farmers, homeowners from sweltering Phoenix or frigid Buffalo, and appliance-makers from Shanghai.

Ask someone whose children's lives depend on getting nitrogen out of the air and into food crops, and she'll probably tell you there's no higher use for natural gas. But in affluent societies that take food for granted, gas ("one of the cleanest, safest and most useful of all energy sources") can provide a lot of options that, after a while, start looking like necessities: keeping the house cool in August, cooking a corn-fed pot roast, driving to the store when you're out of organic milk, or relaxing in a hot tub.

Fertilizer production currently uses only about 5 percent of the world's natural gas production, and nonagricultural uses are already asserting greater dominance over tightening gas supplies on this continent. The escalation of gas prices in recent years has made fertilizer production far less profitable; as a result, the U.S. has lost 30 percent of its nitrogen fertilizer production capacity. American farmers now obtain more than half of their nitrogen fertilizer from abroad, making them the world's biggest importers of the product.

Mainstream economists, as always, predict an easy resolution: as the price of natural gas goes up, they say, people and nations will get more serious about conservation. But natural gas, latched onto increasingly as a somewhat more benign substitute for other fossil fuels, is playing the role of methadone in humanity's vain attempt to ease its withdrawal from coal and oil. And market forces tend to go haywire when dealing with addictive substances.

Without a right to food, people have no rights at all. So when there's a worldwide rush on a mineral resource essential to the production of adequate food -- when the market is the problem, not the solution -- non-market measures are needed to ensure that farmers are free to raise essential food crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has nonbinding "Right to Food" guidelines stating in part that,

States should consider specific national policies, legal instruments, and supporting mechanisms to protect ecological stability and the carrying capacity of ecosystems, to insure the possibility for sustained, increased food production in present and future generations, prevent water pollution, protect the fertility of the soil, and promote the sustainable management of fisheries and forestry.

A firm legal basis for ensuring that all people have access to the means of food production is the UN's 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes "the right of everyone to be free from hunger." The treaty has been ratified by more than 150 nations. The United States is not among them.

Americans cannot expect to support a universal right to food by the roundabout and inadequate practice of importing natural gas and fertilizer, using them to produce surplus grain, and then exporting the grain to countries with food deficits. Every nation must have the means to grow its own food sustainably, with efficient recycling of crop, livestock and human wastes. And when those nutrients aren't sufficient, farmers need guaranteed access to fossil fuels and fertilizers as well.

Nitrogen fertilizer made it possible for us to overpopulate the Earth, and now we're hooked. Someday, as reserves of fossil fuels dwindle, our descendents will come to inhabit a less crowded planet, on crops fed entirely by sunlight and natural fertility. Whether that future population decline happens humanely through planning and restraint or cruelly through catastrophe depends largely on how we manage nonrenewable resources, especially natural gas.

Stan Cox is senior scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and a member of the Institute's Prairie Writers Circle . The assistance of Prof. Tim Crews of Prescott College is much appreciated.