Much of what we hear about the connection between natural gas fracking and agriculture is negative, such as fracking's potential to contaminate water that's then used on crops and even conflicts over water in times of drought.
But there's one link most haven't heard about that Big Agriculture likes - fracking could lead to a resurgence in nitrogen fertilizer production in the US.
Big Ag relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which just happens to be made in a process fueled by natural gas. Since the fracking boom has taken off in the US, suddenly natural gas is quite abundant, making it no longer necessary to import nitrogen fertilizer.
"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," says Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.
As fracking drives down natural gas prices, it will also drive down fertilizer prices. Right now, with natural gas prices at about $2.50 per thousand cubic feet, it takes about $82 of natural gas to make a ton of anhydrous ammonia used in the process, which sells for about $800 a ton.
So, it is actually in the interest of big US farmers to encourage more domestic fracking projects to release natural gas reserves, despite the environmental risks to water. Because that, in turn, will drive more US companies to build nitrogen fertilizer plants on US soil - helping reduce the industry's depend on imported ammonia.
It's already happening. A big Egyptian company, Orascom Construction Industries, is building a $1.4 billion nitrogen plant in Iowa close to a natural gas pipeline. US-owned CHP plans to spend $1.2 billion to build a nitrogen plant in North Dakota.
Cheap natural gas prices aren't the only thing supporting these projects, reports Big Picture Agriculture. Because of state, local and federal tax breaks, other plants may reopen or expand in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio and Georgia.
The environmental fallout of these projects includes excess nitrogen seeping into streams and out to sea, creating massive algae blooms that threaten ocean life; increased emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide; and the destruction of organic matter in soil.
The solution is to refocus public policy to reduce dependence on nitrogen fertilizers altogether.
"One obvious strategy is diversification," notes Mother Jones. "The most prolific US crop, corn is also the most nitrogen-intensive among major field crops. In a 2012 paper, researchers from Iowa State University's Leopold Center showed that by extending the typical Midwestern corn-soy crop rotation by adding a 'small grain' (oats or wheat) plus nitrogen-fixing cover crops, farmers can reduce their nitrogen needs by upwards of 80%. Investing in polices that encourage such changes would likely, in the long run, be much smarter than subsidizing the fertilizer industry's move toward relying on fracked gas."
Read the Mother Jones article, "The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking: