Fossil fuel and synthetic fertilizer companies are aligning to pursue a new escape hatch to continue the fossil economy at the expense of the global climate, the environment, and people’s health and rights: blue ammonia. Lisa Tostado explains why this is an overlooked but central threat to the energy transition.
The science is crystal clear: fossil fuels are the main driver of the climate emergency and the intersecting crises that flow from it. Governments and institutions are slowly but surely beginning to address fossil fuels head-on. As the power, transport, and buildings sectors started to decarbonize, the fossil fuel industry is increasingly interested in a continued use of fossils not (only) as energy, but also as feedstock.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects petrochemicals, i.e. chemicals that are based on oil, gas and coal, will account for more than two-thirds of global oil demand growth through 2026, and for more than half of all petroleum usage by 2050. Plastics and fertilizers, which together account for nearly three-quarters (74%) of all petrochemicals produced, are the major drivers of that growth.
Yet, so far, interest in petrochemicals as a major outlet for fossils and a free card for continued extraction or even expansion of fossil fuels, has focused – if existent at all – on plastics. According to the IEA, fertilizers represent the greatest near-term growth sector for petroleum feedstock use, with fertilizer production projected to demand more than 100 billion cubic meters of fossil gas in 2025. For comparison: Today, all petrochemicals combined consume about 300 bcm per year. If the global petrochemical producers were a country, they would be the fourth-largest gas consumer.
To understand why fertilizers are so gas hungry, we need to go back to some basic chemistry.
Synthetic fertilizers are derived from mineral or fossil fuel extraction. The three primary nutrients needed for plant growth are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). While P and K fertilizers are also based on finite resources, they are not dependent on fossil fuels for feedstock. This is however the case for what the CIEL report “Fossils, Fertilizers, and False Solutions” calls fossil fertilizers or nitrogen fertilizers. They accounted for 56% of the total global fertilizer consumption, whereas phosphate and potash fertilizers held shares of 24% and 20%, respectively.
Fossil fertilizers are based on ammonia (NH₃). The production of ammonia happens via the famous Haber-Bosch process that requires hydrogen (H2). This H2 is in turn derived from steam reforming, a process of synthesizing hydrogen by reacting hydrocarbons with water at high temperatures. Fossil gas is currently the primary source of hydrogen production and fossil fertilizers account for around three quarters of the annual global dedicated hydrogen production. Gas as feedstock is followed by coal, due to its dominant role in China. Less than 0.1% of hydrogen today comes from water electrolysis (“green hydrogen”).
In addition to the high need for fossils as feedstock input, the Haber-Bosch process requires a lot of energy: synthesizing ammonia for nitrogen fertilizers consumes an estimated 3–5% of the world’s fossil gas, with around 40% of this energy input being consumed as feedstock. So, if green hydrogen was used as feedstock and the entire process was run on renewable energies, nitrogen fertilizers would not be fossil fertilizers anymore. As we are very far from such a world, they are fossil today, though, and will continue to be for a while.
That means: agrochemical companies’ business models rely on fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies in turn are interested in agrochemical production, and thereby in industrial input-dependent, environmentally destructive methods of agriculture, to ramp up to still sell their products in the future. This convergence of interests is reflected in deep and pervasive interlinkages between the industries themselves. Again, while the role of oil and gas companies in the plastics buildout is well-documented, links between the fossil fuel and agrochemical industries have received far less attention.
Fossil fertilizer companies are drawing with growing intensity on the fossil fuel playbook to argue that they can make the massive climate impacts of fertilizer production disappear through widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The ammonia production process has already been called the “low hanging fruit for CCS” by the industry because it releases a highly concentrated CO2 stream. They claim this so-called “blue” ammonia to be “clean” and therefore a way of decarbonizing the fertilizer production sector.
Oil, gas, and agrochemical companies are furthermore also partnering on a rapidly growing wave of new projects that would use blue ammonia not only as a critical fertilizer input, but as an energy carrier, and a combustible fuel for shipping. By positioning blue ammonia as “clean”, both industries have secured massive government subsidies for infrastructure investments in the name of climate mitigation.
However, scientific research demonstrates that blue hydrogen and blue ammonia are not only technically and economically infeasible for most uses, they are as bad or worse for the climate than burning fossil gas directly. Important reasons for this are methane emissions and the higher energy input due to conversion losses. As such, on-going investments in blue ammonia are simply lock-ins into a fossil future and a dangerous distraction from the need to transition our energy, transport, and food systems away from fossil fuels.
Even if blue ammonia was effective in decarbonizing shipping or fertilizer production – which again it is not – the CO2 emissions are unfortunately not our only problem associated with the heavy use of agrochemicals or the vast amounts of goods being shipped around the world each day. The only way to stop overstepping various planetary boundaries and tackle the intersecting triple environmental crises of pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change, is a steep reduction in using ammonia in the first place, starting where it is used most excessively today, and preventing a lock-in effect in fossil fuels in both the food and energy system.
Governments and financial institutions must therefore stop pouring their money into fossil-based ammonia and CCS projects and instead introduce policies aimed at transitioning to resilient and regenerative models that will enhance food and energy sovereignty while protecting human rights.
 Of course, fossils entrench the industrial food systems mid- and downstream, too, via inter alia machinery, storage, transport, processing, and plastic packaging.
 Producing today’s volumes of fertilizers plus the projected growth, mostly for maritime shipping, all from green H2 – an energy carrier that many other industries bet on, too – would also come with significant drawbacks, such as large water and land requirements, the difficulty to handle H2, and many more. And again: it would at best decarbonize the production of fertilizers, but change nothing on field emissions, nitrogen pollution of waterways, biodiversity collapse caused by industrial agriculture, etc.
 There are 100-fold differences between countries. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers apply only a few kilograms of fertilizer per hectare. Contrast this with countries such as China, Brazil, the UK where farmers apply hundreds of kilograms per year. In the EU, too, an unacceptable level of nitrogen losses from agricultural land to the environment is still being recorded by the European Environment Agency.