Producing nitrogen fertilizer for US cropland depends on cheap and unfettered access to natural gas.
Ammonia produced for fertilizer using the Haber-Bosch process is responsible for approximately 1.8% of carbon dioxide global emissions.
Products derived from oil and gas are ubiquitous in our lives—and so are their impacts. As society becomes increasingly aware of the risks associated with petrochemicals, one common concern centers around the production and disposal of single-use plastic products. However, there are many other issues related to the petrochemical industry. A prime example: the connection between agriculture and petrochemicals.
But how interdependent are industrial-scale agriculture and the oil and gas industry? And what are the concerns? In this article, we explore the linkages between the two industries, including the history of agricultural development in America and its connection to industrial chemical manufacturing.
Fertilizer and Fossil Fuels
There are many examples of connections between large-scale commercial agriculture and the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. One example of this is commodities such as corn and soybeans being coated in plastics to allow for the controlled release of fungicides and insecticides. However, the most time-tested example of how reliant these two behemoths are connected: industrial agriculture’s historic reliance on nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers.
As farming practices have eroded topsoil and depleted once-fertile grasslands of the greater Midwest, often referred to as the “breadbasket” for its role in producing high volumes of wheat and other staple food crops, reliance on fertilizer has only continued to grow in the last hundred years—which in turns drives the fossil fuel industry.
The History of Fertilizer Production
The connection between fossil fuels and fertilizer begins with production. Producing nitrogen fertilizer for US cropland depends on cheap and unfettered access to natural gas to fuel the Haber-Bosch process, an industrial chemical manufacturing process developed to synthesize ammonia.
Discovered by Nobel Prize-winning chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in the early 1900s, this process converts N2 into Ammonia (NH3) by reacting it with hydrogen (H) at extremely high temperatures (>900F) and pressures (2,200-2,900 psi). Producing the hydrogen feedstock needed for the Haber-Bosch process requires using natural gas for steam reformation to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
By middle of the twentieth century, aided and abetted by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ scientists like Norman Borlaug, technological advances in nitrogen production helped spur what came to be known as the “Green Revolution”, the precursor to modern industrial agriculture characterized by massive alterations of plant genetics, modern irrigation, rampant deployment of all manner of herbicides and pesticides, and the full-throated advocacy for the utility of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers.
Though the Green Revolution is credited for having increased yields significantly where it was implemented, even earning its architect Norman Borlaug a Nobel Prize in 1970, many others were sounding alarms about the potential ecological and socioeconomic impacts of such intensive agriculture, including Anne and Paul Ehrlich in their classic book Population Bomb (1968), and, even more famously, the venerable Rachel Carson in her classic call to arms Silent Spring (1962).
In the US, large agricultural interests didn’t need much coaxing to embrace the fertilizer revolution that was catalyzed by Haber and Bosch, and later implemented on a large scale by Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution”, and his fellow proselytizers.
Today, not only is using the Haber-Bosch process for fertilizer production responsible for approximately 1.8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, no matter where it’s used—whether used in the Great Plains of the US, or the rice fields of Southeast Asia—nitrogen and phosphorus applications exact a price from the environment and people that apply them.
Numerous studies to date have demonstrated the deleterious impacts of Input Intensive Agriculture (IIA) on biodiversity, water quality and quantity, small farmers, food quality, and human health.
Furthermore, whether producing a percentage of the 11.9 million tons of nitrogen used by industrial agriculture in a plant in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, or a fraction of the 3.7 million tons of phosphorus used and derived from mining phosphate rock east of Tampa, Florida, we are relying on natural gas to keep the price of both processes affordable, and therein is the longest running link between “big ag” and “big oil and gas”.
CF Industries in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo by Healthy Gulf c/o SouthWings
“Nitrogen production was estimated to have increased slightly in 2022 compared with that in 2021. A long period of stable and low natural-gas prices in the United States made it economic for companies to upgrade existing ammonia plants and construct new nitrogen facilities. The additional capacity has reduced ammonia imports as expansion in the domestic ammonia industry took place throughout the past five years; however, no additional U.S. ammonia capacity increases have been announced.”
This interactive map looks at all North American – and select international – nitrogen and phosphorus producing plants and/or mines in the case of phosphorus.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view. Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
View Full Size Map | Updated 11/1/2023 | Map Tutorial
This is a map of a single data set of all North American nitrogen and phosphorus producing plants and mines, respectively. We have synthesized this data from industry reports, SEC filings, and industry associations like The Fertilizer Institute. To our knowledge, this is the most complete map of the fertilizer industry to date, however, what this map lacks is a complete inventory of each plant or mine’s annual production rates with this information inaccessible for a variety of reasons including the fact that the USGS does not share individual plant levels of production due to the proprietary way in which they receive such information from commodity producers for their annual Mineral Commodity Summaries.
We have been able to obtain reliable estimates of production, storage capacity, and/or potential capacity for 50% of the 157 facilities in this inventory but that leaves a huge “known unknown” for half of these sites, which is given even more significance given the established relationship between the fertilizer industry and environmental justice issues that run the gamut from human health impacts to algal blooms from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico. What is obvious from this map is that there are significant geographic hotspots for the production of nitrogen and even more so for phosphorus. Florida is by far the largest producer of phosphorus followed by Idaho, Louisiana, Utah, New Mexico, and Saskatchewan (Table 1).
What is clear from the data we have been able to compile is that there is CF Industries in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and then there is everyone else with this mammoth plant producing 8 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year which is more than the next four facilities combined. However, a closer examination of the production data for the 32 currently active nitrogen plants from 2002 to 2021 shows that while Donaldsonville is the leader in terms of percent change over that period there are other plants that have seen massive expansions including the Yara Freeport plant which has actually seen a greater expansion on a percentage basis between 2002 and 2021 than CF Industries’ Donaldsonville plant (Figure 1).
The former has expanded production by 14% per year during this period versus Donaldsonville’s 8.5%. Additionally, LSB Industries El Dorado, Arkansas, and CF Industries in Port Neal, Iowa, have experienced significant annual expansions with respective rates of growth of 8.8% and 14.8% per year albeit over a shorter time period in the case of El Dorado (2016-2021). Several plants have actually witnessed contractions in production including Dyno Nobel’s Cheyenne, Wyoming, plant (-1.6% Per Year), Nutrien’s Kenai, Alaska, plant (-4.1%), and LSB Industries’ Pryor, Oklahoma, plant (-1.4%).
Table 1. US State and Canadian Province Nitrogen and Fertilizer Plants and Mines
State or Province
Number of Plants, Mines, or Terminals
Figure 1. Annual Percent Change in Nitrogen Production for the 32 Active Anhydrous Ammonia Plants in the United States between 2002 and 2021.
The Take Away
The information provided in this interactive map is currently incomplete due to a significant lack of basic information for many of the sites depicted above and therefore warrants further investigation. Additionally, we need to look at the relationship between production and CO2 emissions by merging this data with the EPA FLIGHT data for each site in this data set because it isn’t good enough to simply look at production when it comes to industrial actors like these we must also look at emissions to understand the inefficiencies that likely are rampant across the fertilizer landscape. These will be the updates we will be focusing on during the fall and winter of 2023-2024.