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Tar sands opponents point out that burning natural gas, a relatively clean fuel, to extract oil will result in massive increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, some experts say the implications of using natural gas go far beyond global warming.
North American agriculture is deeply dependent on natural gas. Nitrogen fertilizer is chemically produced using a process that -- currently -- cannot be conducted efficiently without large amounts of natural gas. This fertilizer, in turn, is an essential nutrient in North America's food production system. "In a fairly direct way," says Darrin Qualman, Director of Research at the National Farmers Union, "natural gas is a primary feedstock for our food supply."
While "peak oil," the point at which global production of oil begins to decline, is subject to speculation, natural gas peaked in North America in 2003. Since then, more wells have been added, but production has declined slowly, while prices have increased sharply.
As a result, says Qualman, fertilizer companies are closing up shop and are moving their operations to places like Qatar, Egypt and Trinidad, where natural gas is cheap and plentiful, for now.
Canada has thus begun to import natural gas. At least 10 Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminals are planned in Quebec, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where liquified gas will be brought in from Saudi Arabia, Russia and other producers.
It is, he says, a cause for concern in the coming decades.
"If you're farming in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, using a fertilizer supply based on natural gas from Alberta looks workable," says Qualman. "But if tomorrow our fertilizer is made from natural gas sourced in Russia or the Middle East, we in effect become dependent on offshore, highly unstable supplies for our food system."
In terms of fueling the current food system, there are few compelling alternatives to natural gas. Coal is a possible source of nitrogen but is not nearly as efficient. In some scenarios, nuclear power plants can be used to produce fertilizer.
A more fundamental alternative, says Qualman, is to begin restructuring the food system. Traditionally, nitrogen fixing is performed by crops like beans and chickpeas. Or, it is recycled to cropland from animal manures. Using crop rotation and natural sources to provide nitrogen and reducing energy inputs to agriculture requires changes to diets and far more intensive use of human labour.
Says Qualman, "Given the industrial food system and given a meat-based diet, nitrogen and natural gas are absolutely essential."
This basic fact has global implications.
Vaclav Smil, a professor of Environment & Geography at the University of Manitoba, estimated in his 2004 book Enriching the Earth that 40 per cent of the protein in human bodies worldwide could not have been produced without the use of synthetic nitrogen. He concludes that roughly 2.5 billion of the world's 6.7 billion people could not exist without synthetic fertilizer.
The number of people who depend on synthetic fertilizer for their existence will increase as the world population increases by an estimated two to four billion by 2050.
For Canada, the problem doesn't stop at the food system. "When you think about the Middle East using up its gas supplies," says Qualman, "that's a non-recoverable resource, but those places aren't cold. Canada depends on natural gas for heating. It’s going to be cold here for thousands of years and we’re using up our natural gas supply in decades." According to Natural Resources Canada, nearly half of all Canadian homes -- over six million households -- are heated with natural gas.
Climate change -- propelled by industrial projects like the tar sands -- is also slated to have an adverse impact on agriculture. "Climatologists will tell you that evaporation trumps rainfall," says Qualman. Small increases in temperature could mean much drier growing conditions on Canada's prairies, even if rainfall increases.
The decision to invest huge amounts of natural gas into the tar sands will have ripple effects through the Canadian food system, says Qualman. "As North America becomes natural gas short, as we pass peak and become net importers, we're going to set up a competitive trade-off between the uses of natural gas" -- tar sands, food, heating and power generation among them.
"We really should have a long-term plan around fertility and food before we even think about ramping up production in the tar sands...we have to look at the next 100 years of agriculture and the next 100 years of heating."
"We should be saying: 'Show us the 100-year plan for agriculture and then show us you've got a surplus left over that can be used for the tar sands.'"
In theory, some of the business world seem to agree that "letting the market decide" may not be the most sound energy strategy. A January 2005 article in Canadian Business asserts that "with no long-term guidelines and no surplus capacity, the only thing the market can deliver is 'volatility.'"
The article concludes by quoting the president of a Calgary-based LNG company, saying "Economics 101 will solve the mess, but the trouble is it will do so with a machete...It will hurt."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.