While it is commonly known that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides lead to toxic pollution and biodiversity collapse, an often overlooked aspect of their environmental impact is the fossil fuel origins of these agrochemicals.
According to Steven Feit, an attorney with the Center for Environmental Law (CIEL), a recent report published by CIEL documents how the fossil fuel industry has been seeking to capitalize on the climate crisis by taking advantage of generous federal subsidies for carbon capture and storage by laundering their emissions through the chemicals and agriculture sector.
“ As the world has moved away from oil and gas as fuels,” says Feit, “the fossil fuel industry has been betting on petrochemicals—namely, plastics—to maintain profits. In our October 2022 report, Fossils, Fertilizers, and False Solutions, we shed light on how fossil fuel and fossil fertilizer companies have been partnering to pursue a new escape hatch: one that claims to solve the challenge of hydrogen combustion by using hydrogen and managing the carbon.”
What has been largely unnoticed by news media and advocacy groups, says Feit, is the fact that oil, gas, and agrochemical companies are partnering on a growing number of new projects that use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to produce fossil gas-based “blue” ammonia (and its “blue” hydrogen precursor), both for fertilizer and as a combustible fuel for transport and energy. By doing this, the fertilizer and fossil fuel companies can greenwash their polluting business, take advantage of generous new subsidies for CCS, and access new markets as “clean energy companies.”
According to Feit, while CCS looks good on paper, it is highly energy intensive and underperforms in practice. CCS is not a new technology, and most carbon capture efforts are designed to facilitate the production of more oil and gas. Unlike small-scale technologies such as solar, batteries, and wind, CCS has not become cheaper over time.
“CCS is one leg of the ‘false solutions’ stool,” explains Feit. “The other is hydrogen, which is an indirect greenhouse gas. Almost all hydrogen is used for oil refining and the production of ammonia for synthetic fertilizer. Blue hydrogen emits more greenhouse gas than the burning of natural gas and coal.”
Given the nature of the industrial agricultural system, with its large-scale method of food production and the overuse of chemical fertilizers, industrial food production will continue to be vulnerable to the volatility inherent in oil and gas markets, as the world experienced last year with market shocks in food, fuel, and fertilizer prices.
A top priority in terms of climate change and food security, says Feit, is to get public money out of the fossil fuel and agrochemical industries. Given the severe environmental damage to biodiversity, marine ecosystems, and human health, even gradual reductions in fertilizers and pesticides—as we begin the transition to a more regenerative system of agriculture—would be steps in the right direction.
The CIEL report concludes that the need for such a fundamental transformation is as urgent and as compelling as the global energy transition, the transition away from plastic pollution, and the transition to a world free of toxic chemicals.
“At a time of surging fossil fuel, fertilizer, and food prices, and with the escalating climate crisis as a backdrop, the case for transitioning away from fossil fertilizer and from fossil fuels altogether has never been clearer,” says Feit.
For more information about the CIEL report, visit: https://www.ciel.org or go to NCCCA’s YouTube channel to view Steven Feit’s presentation.