USDA Policy Initiatives to Address Peak Phosophorus

Phosphate fertilizers are used worldwide to increase agricultural yields. With a growing population has come a growing demand for food and, in turn, these fertilizers. A ballooning global middle class is consuming more meat, further increasing humanity’s appetite for phosphorus. Despite these realities, phosphate is mined with little regard for waste, applied to fields with no incentive to reduce runoff, and flushed without a second thought. These factors accelerate the depletion of this crucial nutrient at home and abroad. Given the imminent possibility of peak phosphorus, I suggest the following policy initiatives to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to stem our contribution to this crisis.

(1) Prioritize phosphorus use for food production by instituting price signals to incentivize conservative use of phosphate in fertilizers and other products and processes.

(2) Restructure agricultural subsidies to discourage meat consumption and non-cellulosic biofuel production. In conjunction with these changes, consumers should be educated about the personal and societal benefits of eating less meat.

(3) Intensify efforts to recover phosphorus from human and livestock waste by increasing research funding, piloting new technologies, and taking advantage of the confluence of phosphorus recovery and non-point source water pollution mitigation.

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Phosphate rock mining operation

Phosphate fertilizer prices increased approximately 350 percent between 2003 and 2008, a trend whose direction is sure to continue as phosphorus grows scarcer. The USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics division should preempt steep price increases by taxing the sale of phosphorus materials at a higher rate in the near term. This would encourage conservative fertilizer use by farmers without crippling their ability to afford it. Implementing price signals could also affect the choice of non-agricultural industries to use phosphorus in their products. Although they have been mostly phased out in cleansers and detergents, products like fire retardants, metal treatments, and lubricants still use phosphorus materials. This initiative could ultimately hasten efforts to conserve national phosphorus reserves, which account for more than 90% of domestic use.

In collaboration with other governmental bodies, the USDA should begin restructuring agricultural subsidies to account for the effects of increasing meat consumption and biofuel production on phosphorus demand. Changes to subsidies should aim to allow the price of meat to rise through the reduction of subsidies for livestock feed crops and for certain subsidy programs for livestock itself. Additionally, the USDA should phase out subsidies for biofuel crops in favor of stimulating cellulosic biofuel utilization. Doing so would reduce organic waste whose value may otherwise may go unrealized for the purpose of growing food in the short term. Both of these measures would disincentivize heavy reliance on fertilizers by forcing farmers to reexamine their budgets. The final component of this initiative would be systematic public outreach to educate consumers about the benefits of decreasing their meat consumption and about the concept of peak phosphorus, which could be spearheaded by the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services arm.

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Waste lagoon at a massive hog farm, where animal excrement rich in phosphorus is stored

Perhaps most importantly, the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics division should intensify efforts to understand recovery of phosphorus from human and livestock waste by increasing research funding, implementing new technologies, and engaging the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the dual benefits of phosphorus recovery and non-point source water pollution mitigation. Many promising technologies for waste phosphorus recovery have been piloted in recent years, some of which produce phosphate in a virtually ready-to-apply form. Having the ability to efficiently recover phosphorus materials from wastewater would decrease the virgin phosphorus extracted, is scalable to a growing population, and may present the opportunity for operators of wastewater treatment plants to profit. Similar processes could even be applied in relative measures in areas of severe eutrophication, serving the dual purpose of increasing available phosphorus and mitigating water pollution. For this reason, additional funding could possibly be secured from the EPA.

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Massive pile of phosphogypsum, a waste product of phosphate fertilizer production

Hydraulic Fraturing: A Brief Introduction

Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is a technique in which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid, most often to facilitate the extraction of oil and/or natural gas. A solution typically composed of water, sand and other proppants, thickening agents, and other chemicals is injected at high pressures into a well to create cracks in the deep formations through which oil and natural gas can flow more readily. The abundance of natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation has brought hydrofracking to the forefront of the American energy dialogue.

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A diagram about the basics of hydrofracking. (Image source)

Hydraulic Fracturing in the Delaware River Basin: Economic Boon or Environmental Disaster?

A hydraulic fracturing site, including a wastewater impoundment and other associated features. (Image source)

Although hydrofracking in the DRB could result in job creation and other economic advantages, the uncertain allocation of these benefits, as well as the potential for human health risks and ecological damage, are cause for concern.

It seems obvious that allowing hydrofracking in the DRB would create jobs and generate revenue for the state and local businesses; and maybe it would. However, the locales that are often targeted for resource extraction lack a native workforce that possesses the skills required to benefit. Consequently, engineers, drillers, and other personnel are brought in from outside the state, diminishing the likelihood that local communities benefit from these new employment opportunities. Additionally, history has shown that properties near drilling sites often lose value in the wake of extraction operations.

Increased revenue for states, counties, and municipalities is another common selling point for hydrofracking. In 2012, Pennsylvania signed into law an impact fee to be collected from all natural gas drillers, bringing in more than $200 million. 60% of these monies were earmarked for the municipalities in which the fees are assessed, with the remaining 40% going to the state. However, many have argued that with workers flowing in to work at hydrofracking operations puts financial strain on states and municipalities to provide additional community services, such as first responders and road maintenance. Regardless of the circumstances, each state comprising the DRB would have to closely examine its tax system, insurance and bonding requirements, and drilling regulations. Perhaps most importantly, states within the DRB would have to consider the environment.

If hydrofracking were to occur in the DRB, local ecosystems would pay a price. How steep that price would be is uncertain, but history suggests that the environmental implications could be devastating and could include air emissions, high water consumption, surface and groundwater contamination, habitat fragmentation, increasing risk of earthquakes, noise pollution, and other issues. There are also potential public health implications, which have not been studied enough yet to draw definitive conclusions.

Large quantities of fresh water are required during hydrofracking. Although some of this water is recovered, it contains proppants, chemicals, brine, and natural gas and/or other hydrocarbons, and must be treated extensively before being discharged or used for any other purpose. Depending on how carefully this wastewater is handled and where it is treated, it is often the case that the treated water is discharged outside the basin, resulting in a net loss of fresh water from the area. Untreated wastewater can easily leach into groundwater aquifers, threatening public health. Increased truck traffic and generator use, construction of new roads, and forest clearing, all of which increase harmful air emissions and fragment local habitat, are virtually inevitable when developing hydrofracking sites. These effects linger long after resources have been extracted.

Drilling slurry at hydro-fracking site, Dimock, Pennsylvania

Hydrofracking slurry being pumped into a waste impoundment (Image source)

Hydrofracking should not be allowed in the DRB. Despite the near inevitability of environmental damage, however, I think that hydrofracking could be a more balanced proposition in the future, once more research has been completed and more regulatory consideration have been given.

A sunset on the Delaware Bay, one of the most critical water bodies within the Delaware River Basin. (Image source)

Sources

(1) Riverkeeper. (10/15/2012). Tell the Governor New Yorkers Don’t Want Fracking Rubber Stamped. Retrieved from http://www.riverkeeper.org/fracking/tell-the-governor-new-yorkers-don%E2%80%99t-want-fracking-rubber-stamped/

(2) Public Utility Commission. (Date unknown). Act 13 (Impact Fee). Retrieved from http://www.puc.state.pa.us/filing_resources/issues_laws_regulations/act_13_impact_fee_.aspx

(3) Democracywise. (05/02/2013). Hydrofracking’s Costs & Benefits Weighed. Retrieved from http://democracywise.syr.edu/?p=7024

External Links

US Department of Energy – Shale Gas 101

USEPA – Natural Gas Extraction: Hydraulic Fracturing

Delaware River Basin Commission – Natural Gas Drilling Index Page