Towards a gas cut: the moment of truth on our dependence on hydrocarbons has come

The sharp rise in the price of oil and gas has many and unexpected effects. May this crisis serve us at least to realize that we will not do without them and that renewable energies will not help to solve the energy problem. This is true in many fields and, in particular, in agriculture. Here’s why without oil and gas we would have a serious food crisis.

Récolte du blé dans la région de Rostov, dans le sud de la Russie – from Atlantico original story. Stringer/AFP

Contributed by Samuel Furfari © 2022. Previously published in French in Atlantico. This is a auto-translated edition, published with permission of the author.

When in April 2020 the price of oil went into negative territory, environmentalist ideologues tried to make the naïve believe that the era of oil was finally over. Now that the price of crude oil has regularly exceeded 110 dollars per barrel ($/b), the concern is to continue supplying the European market, the EU having decided to do without Russian oil delivered by sea. Since the first oil shock in 1973, people have said that we will reduce oil consumption and we have done exactly the opposite. Global production in 1973 was 58 million barrels per day (mb/d) and in 2019 (before Covid) it was 95 mb/d and in 2021, according to the latest statistics released by BP last week, oil consumption increased by 5.3 million barrels per day (bpd).

We are so used to hearing denigration of fossil fuels that we fail to realize their indispensable and inescapable role in all areas of our lives. Coal generates 36% of the world’s electricity, 74% in India. Without oil, there is no transport since it depends more than 90% on petroleum products. Without natural gas, there is no heating or industrial thermal use (70% of the gas being used for heating). “To put it plainly: There is no short-term solution to replace natural gas from Russia ,” said Martin Brudermülle, managing director of BASF, the German global chemical giant, very worried about the future of his business.

The inadmissible famine awaits

The same goes for our food. It took the terrible war in Ukraine for the public, confronted with the simmering global food crisis, to realize that the world was turning long before without our paying attention. The crisis is of grave concern as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on June 24 that food access problems this year could turn into food shortages next year, and that no country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a disaster. He said that “there can be no effective solution to the global food crisis without reintegrating Ukrainian food production, as well as Russian-produced food and fertilizers, into world markets”.

The wheat crisis

Indeed, Ukraine normally exports around 10% of the world’s wheat, a good part of which goes to China since this country bought agricultural land in Ukraine in 2013 for an area equivalent to the area of Belgium. The blocking of the ports through which Ukraine exported its wheat has forced it to find alternatives, by road, rail or sea, which, although meritorious, are insufficient. If political leaders speak of Russian blackmail, it is because there is no satisfactory alternative. Whether by train or truck to Poland or a little through the Romanian port of Constanța, approximately 2 million tonnes per month (Mt/m) are exported when Ukraine normally exports 6 or 7 Mt/m . These export routes also complicate logistics. If before the war the wheat was transported by boat, it is because it was consistent. The German railway company is preparing transport by a train noria. In addition, the wheelbase of the rails in Ukraine is different, which complicates the situation, and the Russians are destroying the Ukrainian railways faster than they can be repaired. A Panama-type boat carries the equivalent of fifty trains, not to mention that at destination, you still have to transfer their load to a boat if you want to make distant deliveries. That we have to carry out this transport by rail is explained by the fact that we are in a war economy and that we have to cope “whatever the cost”.

But Russia exports six times more than Ukraine, which gives it an advantage in geopolitics, because the first need of humanity is to feed itself. Even if there are still pockets of malnutrition, it must be recognized that thanks to the green revolution (that of agriculture) in recent decades, hunger in the world has greatly decreased. This is what explains demographic growth: in the first phase of development, a good diet leads to a better life expectancy and consequently to demographic growth. So there are more mouths to feed than before and this gives Russia a similar advantage to the one it has in energy.

Fortunately, EU citizens need not worry too much about grain shortages: much of it is produced in-house thanks to the development of EU agricultural policy. Of course, given the global supply difficulties, the price will be higher. On the other hand, difficulties could arise in other regions of the world which cannot afford to pay a high price. However, this risk must be weighed, because the grain market is accustomed to cyclical changes since harvests depend on the weather, which is by nature always uncertain.

The green revolution

When all is well, we do not worry about knowing what allows us to enjoy this state of well-being. Faced with the crisis, will the media explain to the population that we should reflect on the advantages of oil and gas consumption, including in the primary sector of agriculture?

If we have enough to eat in the EU, it is thanks to the common agricultural policy which, since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, has made it possible to pool production and create a true single market for agricultural products. This success has been copied by the rest of the world, even if there is still progress to be made in certain countries, particularly in Africa. It was achieved through the real green revolution. Thanks to scientific methods (for example, the selection of seeds, including GMOs), the use of inputs and the introduction of technology (mechanization) in agriculture during the 1960s and 1990s, witnessed a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity.

The best indicator of the success of this increase is the equally dramatic decline in world hunger. The criticism of eutrophication, the loss of biodiversity (how to measure it?) or other real or supposed pollution is childish in the face of the millions of lives saved from famine. Only those for whom nature is as valuable as a single human life deny the prowess of modern agriculture, green agriculture.

The return to muscular energy?

Despite this undeniable success, European ecologists claim to tell African farmers how to do it and advise them not to copy us. They reject technological advances in agriculture, even abandoning the use of tractors in favor of “muscle force” – an ecological neologism to designate hard work with the sweat of the brow and with the use of animal whips.

A small calculation is enough to measure the ridiculousness of their proposal. As soon as the internal combustion engine became available, agriculture became mechanized, precisely to avoid this drudgery. According to the latest data from the World Bank, in 2002 there were 24 million agricultural tractors in service around the world. Twenty years later, it is reasonable to estimate that there are now 30 million. Tractor horsepower ranges from a few horsepower (hp) to 600 hp for those used on large farms in the United States. By calculating, largely by default, an average power of 100 hp per tractor, we arrive at more than 22 billion man-equivalents. The power of the tractors used in the world is at least equivalent to the power of three times the total world population, including the elderly and children. And this, thanks to the use of petroleum products (mainly diesel)! The elimination of hard work—that is, of muscular strength! — has largely contributed to improving the health of agricultural workers and their life expectancy. The determination of environmentalists to return to muscle energy can only be explained by their Malthusian vision, for it is obvious that abandoning hydrocarbon energy in agriculture can only lead to deadly malnutrition.

Furthermore, since multinationals are not welcome in Africa, environmental NGOs, churches, state and UN agencies oppose the real green revolution. As a result, unfortunately, “agroecology” is developing in sub-Saharan Africa more than green agriculture. As is often the case, when we think we are doing the right thing, the result is the opposite. Nature Food Review published in July 2020 a study entitled “Limits of agroecology to overcome low crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa” which concludes on the basis of 933 observations in 16 countries that “although agroecology can bring conservation benefits soils, it does not allow African smallholders to overcome low crop productivity and short-term food insecurity”.

The same is true for permaculture fashion. If for millennia human beings turned the earth with the sweat of their brow to feed themselves, we wonder on what basis we suddenly became intelligent by sowing without plowing… Was the inventor of the plow a masochist?

Charitable organizations bear a heavy responsibility. Indeed, agroecology will not eliminate food deficits and deficiencies. Did we need a study to prove it? Why have we in Europe and the United States abandoned agroecology? To please the oil companies by buying them diesel? There is no comparison between mechanized and fertilized agriculture and the small yield increases of new technologies promoted by the constellation of environmental and supposedly humanitarian NGOs with European taxpayers’ money.

  1. Irrigation with energy
Figure 1 Abandoned wind turbine on the Lassithi plateau (Crete). Photo by S. Furfari

Irrigation, which also depends on energy, plays an indispensable role. Since the beginning of the world, the only water that has left planet Earth is the urine of astronauts. For the rest, not a single molecule of water has left our planet. To paraphrase Archimedes, give me energy and I’ll give you all the water you want. With the energy, you supply the pumps which distribute the water everywhere and with processes of industrial chemistry one purifies the water. In addition, hydroelectric dams are not only used to produce renewable electricity, but also to manage water well, since they constitute extremely useful reservoirs for periods of low rainfall, and by retaining water that is sometimes too abundant, they prevent flooding.

Of course, since these pumps run on electricity, some could therefore imagine the production of electricity produced by the wind or the sun. It is worth remembering the lesson of the Lassithi plateau in Crete. This thriving subsistence agricultural area of approximately 25 km2 located in the crater of an ancient volcano is known as “the valley of 10,000 mills”. These are wind turbines with blades covered with canvas (like windmills) that were used to pump water for irrigation. Vestiges of a bygone era, they have all been abandoned, as the electrification of the plateau has given much better results.

In addition, research allows the development of plantations or varieties that will require less water and that will be better adapted to the drought or heat conditions of certain regions.

  1. Hydrogen saves us from starvation

However, this progress would not have been possible without the determined intervention of chemistry in agriculture for more than 150 years. Plants need three main elements to grow fully: nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potassium. Plants get these nutrients from organic sources found naturally in the soil, but with each harvest, the soil is depleted and yields are lower. People have lived this way for thousands of years. Our ancestors discovered that manure and compost improved the productivity of the land. The nitrogen in the air, which nevertheless constitutes 71% of it, is useless to the plants, which must take it from the soil in the form of nitrate.

According to the FAO , between 2002 and 2019, fertilizer production fell from 87 million tonnes (Mt) to 123 Mt; the main producer is China with 32 Mt, i.e. a quarter of world production. This is only normal, since China has to feed 1.4 billion human beings. According to the Green Paper on Population and Labor: Report No. 19 on China’s Population and Labor Issues, it will take until 2065 for it before China’s population drops to 1.2 billion . China will remain the giant in demand for food, fertilizer and energy.

Figure 2 Stages which, starting from natural gas, lead to the development of agricultural yields

Indeed, to produce these fertilizers, you need ammonia, and ammonia is produced from nitrogen in the air and hydrogen, itself made from hydrocarbons or coal (Figure 2). In his 1922 book on industrial chemistry—a century old! — Paul Baud explains that in 1912 (Figure 3), a cubic meter of hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water cost 0.55 to 0.95 francs and that from coal the price was 0.15 to CHF 0.19. Chemistry has not changed, which explains why hydrogen, the basis of fertilizers, is still not produced from the electrolysis of water by electricity, whether of nuclear or renewable origin. This chemical reality will remain forever, so that in an open and competitive world, there is no chance of producing hydrogen from electricity. “The hydrogen utopia”.

On the other hand, wind turbines and solar panels can produce green electricity for the grid or to produce green hydrogen for clean transport (since the European Commission aims to make the transport sector greener). Doing both at the same time is not possible. This is why ecologists, who do not like hydrogen, have denounced the hydrogen policy which “cannibalizes” the beautiful production of green electricity.

Given that 130 Mt per year of hydrogen are produced for the chemical industry, and that in a globalized market there can only be one price (as the current painful explosion in the price of oil shows), all hydrogen which should hypothetically be produced by electrolysis of water with renewable energies will go to the essential market of fertilizer production and not to the luxury market of green electricity.

Unless it subsidizes this import with new taxes justified by the EnergieWende, Germany will not import hydrogen from the Maghreb or Angola to burn it as an ordinary primary energy. Belgium will have to spend a lot of public money to import any hydrogen produced in Namibia. In addition, it would be eco-colonialism, since this South West African country imports all its electricity from neighboring countries and Eskom, the electricity company of South Africa, is obliged to load shedding of its electricity supplies in its own country to meet its delivery obligations in Namibia. Burning hydrogen is like burning a Louis Vuitton handbag to produce heat and it endangers agricultural production.

Russia has the world’s largest natural gas reserves with low production costs and is a major producer of much-needed nitrogen fertilizers. According to the FAO, between 2002 and 2019, fertilizer exports increased from 24 million tonnes (Mt) to 46 Mt and the main exporter is Russia with 5.4 Mt, or 12% of world trade. Despite this great need for fertilizers, the European Commission tried to oppose a Council text which recommended the construction of fertilizer factories in Africa and the Middle East for environmental reasons.

Figure 3

Without fossil fuels, world hunger will return

Our heavy dependence on wheat, fertilizers and energy shows that we would have had a strategic interest in defusing the current crisis 20 years ago. The EU strategy failed because the energy price increases were created by its strategic flippancy in focusing on green ideology.

The EU, which should abandon the forced march towards renewable energies which are destroying our prosperity, is determined to accelerate decarbonisation, as recent decisions show. Since 2000, Europe has intended to impose renewable energies against all odds. Now that we are bearing the brunt of the consequences (consumer prices in the euro zone rose by 8.6% in June), it is urgent that the EU rehabilitates conventional energy (fossil, nuclear and hydraulic) to guarantee our citizens and our industry abundant and cheap energy. Agriculture and all other activities will not be able to do without fossil fuels, either directly or indirectly.

In his introductory statement to the declaration of May 9, Robert Schuman had announced “A Europe where the Ruhr, the Saar and the French basins will work together and share their peaceful work, followed by United Nations observers, all Europeans , without distinction whether they are from the East or the West, and all the territories, especially Africa, which expect their development and prosperity from the Old Continent”. This sentence remains an urgent call for us to do what is necessary to eliminate the areas of Africa where people eat too little or badly or at the cost of superhuman labor – which some call muscle energy without realizing the contempt of their proposal…

Previous generations built a world of well-being that eradicated starvation, eliminated drudgery and increased life expectancy. The green revolution—the real one—was one of its key instruments. It was made possible by oil. Without abundant and cheap energy, progress would have been the preserve of the rich and privileged. Petroleum, despite all the disadvantages that can be found in it, will remain essential to continue this progress in agriculture and in all our other activities.

Tractors will never run on solar panels or hydrogen. Like our food, our need for energy will never go away. Geopolitics must take this into account, even within the EU.

Samuel Furfari
Professor of Energy Geopolitics
President of the European Society of Engineers and Industrialists

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