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Hydraulic fracturing propels substantial reinvestment in U.S. fertilizer industry

   The popularity of fracturing – a drilling process that creates low-cost sources of natural gas – is catapulting the U.S. fertilizer market to new heights in exporting and attracting the attention of fertilizer manufacturers from abroad who desire to build plants in Illinois.
   In 2011, the U.S. fertilizer industry reported $10 billion in revenues, exporting another $4.5 billion overseas. Fertilizer, in its various forms, is comprised of 70 percent to 75 percent natural gas – the resource produced by fracking.
   Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, says the U.S.’ role today as a major exporter of fertilizer is markedly different to what it was even a decade ago.
   “In the early 2000s, our fertilizer industry had been moving abroad, to Trinidad, Tobago, Canada and Russia,” said Payne. “Thanks to the U.S. fracking boom, producers are now returning home. When I was working for the IFCA back then, the U.S.’ cost was incredibly high – the highest in the world. It was approximately $33 for one million metric BTU, and theirs was $1 to $3 per BTU, including the freight. We lost thousands of U.S. fertilizer manufacturing facilities from 2000 to 2006 because we couldn’t compete with the Soviet Union and South America.”
   Also during that period, Payne says the U.S. was forced to import more than 50 percent of its nitrogen from other countries. Because nitrogen is a primary ingredient in fertilizer, she says, from a food security standpoint it left the U.S. in a vulnerable position for several years.
   “That was a huge concern for U.S. agriculture,” Payne said. “Without fertilizer, you don’t have food security. We were shifting to a real dependency upon imports. At that time, we had one nitrogen production facility open in the northwest corner of Illinois, and we were fighting to keep it open.”
   To make things worse, says Payne, the IFCA had to also fight Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s May 2003 proposal to impose a 5 percent tax on natural gas. The proposal didn’t succeed.
   Today the plant that the IFCA was working hard to save 10 years ago is far from struggling, thanks in big part to fracking. Rentech Nitrogen in East Dubuque, Ill. is one of the primary producers of nitrogen fertilizer products in the “Mid Corn Belt” region of the United States, which is the largest market U.S. for direct application of nitrogen fertilizer products.
   John Diesch, president and director of Rentech Nitrogen Partners, says the plant was built back in 1965 by Northern Illinois Natural Gas Co. and a number of the plant’s original employees are still on the job. Rentech Nitrogen employs 150 people and will complete a sizable expansion, adding capacity over the next few months.
   “We’re in the midst of a $100 million expansion right now that will come on stream this fall,” said Diesch. “We’ll go from producing 300,000 tons per year of ammonia to 370,000 tons annually.”
   Rentech’s solid fertilizer products are distributed to the lawn and garden market; its liquid fertilizers are used by farmers. Diesch says that without a doubt, fracking has boosted production not only at this plant (which in 2011 reported revenues of $32.6 million) but also industrywide in the U.S.
   “The expectation is that natural gas will be at a reasonable price for some time to come,” Diesch said. “Continually advancing technologies in farming and agriculture overall definitely play a role. Just a few weeks ago, for example, only 29 percent of the nation’s corn had been planted due to the deluge of rainfall we’d received. One week later, the percentage of corn that had been planted was up to 70 percent. That much ground could be covered in one week because of the amazing level and sophistication of technologies now available in the U.S. agricultural system. It’s no wonder that a lot of producers and investors are looking at constructing facilities in Illinois and the Midwest.”
   Payne agrees.
   “The industry is a huge economic engine right now,” said Payne. “And to do it, we’ve had to do a 180 in the last 12 years in terms of the economics of it all. The fertilizer industry, for the first time in a long time, is exporting to other countries. In addition to production in Illinois, there are operational plants in Iowa, Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast. When you see companies like Rentech and you see the Turkish company looking at building one in Tuscola, Ill., it’s clearly evident that things have turned around. Ten years ago, we would have been looking to them. Today they’re looking to us. It’s a phenomenal time for Illinois.”
   In December 2012, a group of Turkish investors formed Cronus Chemicals LLC and have been courting both Illinois and Iowa for financial incentives to build their $1.2 billion fertilizer plant, estimated to generate 2,000 temporary construction jobs, 200 permanent jobs, a $300 million annual economic impact on a six-county area. Urged by Gov. Pat Quinn, the Illinois Senate approved a bill to amend Enterprise Zone legislation to create a business district and make the plant eligible for property tax abatement. The House has not yet passed a companion bill. Iowa has reportedly offered $35 million in incentives.
   Mark Denzler is vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. According to Denzler, the new high-volume fracturing – and the revolutionary technologies it embraces – is resulting in both wet and dry natural gas that is being sold at a reasonable price in the marketplace. And that can only mean positive outcomes for Illinois and the nation, he says.
   “We’re beginning to see a resurgence of fertilizer manufacturing plants being  built in the U.S. for the first time in 30 years,” Denzler said. “Again, it’s because of the abundance of shale gas in Southern Illinois, which is also attributable to the incredible economic impact that the fracking industry is having. A recent economic study that was done on high-volume fracturing in Southern Illinois (see reports that the New Albany shale gas formation, which covers a substantial portion of the southern part of Illinois, has the potential to be a significant creator of jobs for Illinois. A minimum of 1,000 jobs would be created or supported each year with the potential of 47,000 jobs annually,” he added. “That translates into more than $9.5 billion of economic impact for our state.”
   It has been quite awhile since a new manufacturing operation has established roots in Illinois, says Denzler. The IMA would welcome such job creation with open arms now more than ever.
   “The last time we’ve seen a major new facility built was in 1988 under Governor Jim Thompson (the Mitsubishi Motors plant),” Denzler said. “Now companies are beginning to eye Illinois again. It’s exciting to see one healthy industry (fracking) propelling another (fertilizer).”

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