Algeria & Morocco: Natural Gas Cartels, Fertilizer Mercantilism, and Rising Tensions

Algeria is one of the world’s most important oil and gas exporters. Morocco has no significant oil and gas production, but has about 2/3 of the world’s rock phosphate reserves, a critical component in global fertilizer supply that increased 300% in price in the past year (.pdf) and may peak alongside global oil production. The two nations have historically been at odds, especially over the phosphate-rich territory of Western Sahara. Now, more than ever, their exports are critical to the energy and food supplies of the world. Alongside increasing importance, tensions between the two are on the rise as the US and Russia provoke the situation with massive opposing arms deals and bi-lateral trade agreements. This article will look at the forces behind these rising tensions and consider issues of fertilizer mercantilism, infrastructure vulnerability, and the potential formation of a natural gas cartel.

will gas and fertilizer bring conflict to North Africa
Will Demand for Gas & Fertilizer Bring New Conflict to Morocco & Algeria?

Country Briefs:

Algeria: Algeria is an important exporter of both oil and natural gas (background .ppt on NG supplies to Europe). Algeria is Europe’s third largest supplier of natural gas, providing 30+ bcm via pipelines and 20+ bcm via LNG tanker in 2007. Major projects are currently underway to expand pipeline infrastructure to Italy (via Tunisia) and to Spain (both direct undersea and via Morocco), and to expand LNG export capability. Algeria hopes to expand total natural gas exports to 85 bcm/year by 2010, making their production roughly the equivalent of Norway (Europe’s 2nd largest provider). Significantly, the potential to expand natural gas supplies to Europe enhances Algeria’s importance as an alternative supplier in light of current dependence on uncertain Russian gas supplies. Algeria also faces an active Islamist insurgency, a separate threat from the rising al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, and serious demographic challenges in the form of a 1.22% population growth rate (graph) and sharp ethnic divisions (map).

Figure 1: Algeria's Place Among African Natural Gas Reserves

Morocco: Morocco's importance to the global economy is due to its control of at least 2/3 of the world's reserves of rock phosphate. The USGS has stated that there are no substitutes (.pdf) for rock phosphate in agriculture. With biofuel demand increasing steadily, and world food shortages hitting the headlines, rock phosphate is arguably as important to the world situation as oil supply. Importantly, Patrick Dery has performed a Hubbert Lineraization on world phosphorus production and estimates that we have already passed peak phosphorus (see graph below). While the importance of rock phosphate has been discussed here before, its impact on the situation between Morocco and Algeria has not. Additionally, fertilizer supplies are a critical component of many biofuel projects, creating an interrelationship between phosphate and energy supplies. Like Algeria, Morocco faces an internal Islamist insurgency (though currently less troublesome than in Algeria) and has significant demographic challenges with a population growth rate of 1.6% (graph) and sharp ethnic divides (map).

Figure 2: Peak Phosphorus? A Hubbert Lineraization of Global Phosphate Production

Tensions: The Sand War, Western Sahara, and Islamist Insurgencies

There are several sources of tension between Morocco and Algeria. The two states fought the Sand War from 1963-64 over a mineral-rich border territory. In 1975, when Morocco took control of Western Sahara, Algeria began overtly backing the Polisario Front in an ongoing insurgency that continued unchecked until a 1991 cease fire. Both states also suffer from internal Islamist insurgencies, exacerbated by increasing demographic problems. The situation in Algeria is most severe: after independence from France, the revolutionary National Liberation Front ruled the country until Islamists won the first free elections in 1991, prompting the military to immediately seize control. More than 160,000 people were killed in the ensuing civil war between 1992 and 2002. While the country is relatively peaceful today, factions of the Islamist rebels have remained, operating out of rural regions inside the Malian border and elsewhere in the Sahara, and have recently merged with al-Qa'ida to form AQIM (al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb). The group has recently carried out several attacks in Algeria, including the April 11 2007 Algiers Bombing, the December 11 2007 Algiers bombing, the 2007 Batna bombing, and the 2007 Dellys bombing, as well as being possibly involved in the 2007 Casablanca bombing in Morocco. The pace of attacks has not slowed, with at least five bombings in the last two months alone.

Infrastructure Targeting?

While Algerian Islamists have generally mirrored target selection of Islamist groups elsewhere, one attack in December, 2006, specifically targeted Haliburton workers in Algeria. This tactic, of targeting critical infrastructure and energy industries, has been increasing around the world as non-state groups everywhere realize that they can maximize their return on investment with these targets. With rising internal threats and state sponsored proxy conflicts, and the potential for direct state military attacks no longer too remote to consider, it is concerning that both Algeria and Morocco present some extremely high ROI energy and resource infrastructure targets:

- Morocco: The Fosbucraa Conveyor, the world’s longest conveyor belt, transporting phosphates from the world's largest phosphate mine at Bou Kra 100km to the port of el Aioun. The conveyor was successfully attacked several times by the Polisario Front. Here's a satellite image.

- Algerian pipelines & LNG infrastructure: Algeria is chock full of high-vulnerability, high-consequence targets. Algeria recently signed a 100 million euro contract with French defense firm Thales to secure oil and gas pipelines. With 16,200 km of major pipelines to protect in Algeria alone (and scheduled to increase to 21,000 km by 2010), the task is daunting. Additionally, two potential future infrastructure projects may represent appealing targets. The proposed Trans-Saharan natural gas pipeline, that would deliver Nigerian natural gas to Europe via a 4,550 km pipeline, would represent a lengthy and vulnerable target to multiple groups if it is ever built (construction is “penciled in” to start in 2015). Additionally, speculative plans (such as the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperative, or TREC) to leverage high solar insolation in the Sahara to generate electricity for Europe would require huge transmission infrastructure that would be both highly vulnerable and highly attractive. Neither the Trans-Saharan pipeline nor TREC is in any danger of being built in the immediate future.

Thoughts on the Future: Proxy Wars & Proxy Mercantilism

Recently, the fragile 1991 cease fire agreement with the Western Saharan Polisario Front has become increasingly unstable. Complicating the situation with Western Sahara, French President Sarkozy announced his support to Morocco's decision to postpone indefinitely the self-determination referendum promised in the 1991 accord, along with increased Algerian support to Polisario leadership. All this comes against a backdrop of rising military tensions between Morocco and Algeria. In 2008, the US doubled military aide to Morocco and announced arms deals worth billions of dollars. At the same time, various sources confirmed that Russian concluded a $7.5 billion deal to provide advanced arms to Algeria.

Is there any deeper meaning behind these moves? At least two possibilities must be considered. The first is proxy-mercantilism by the United States to secure control of phosphate supplies. In 2004, the US entered into a bi-lateral free trade agreement with Morocco. This can be explained as a natural extension of the long history of economic and military cooperation between the US and Morocco, but in light of proposed biofuel programs, skyrocketing rock phosphate prices, potentially peaking phosphate production, and mercantilist moves by other great powers, the more nefarious possibilities must be considered. The second possibility is that Russia hopes to leverage increased influence with Algeria to exert greater influence in global natural gas markets. Because Algeria is one of Western Europe's few true alternatives to Russian natural gas supplies, especially given the prospect of sharp increases in Algerian natural gas exports, Algeria represents either a threat to Russian natural gas leverage, or a great enhancement of that leverage by entering a defacto gas cartel. At a minimum, we know that Russia and Algeria are actively engaged in talks on this topic. Also, a recent offer by Gazprom to buy all of Libya's additional oil and gas production supports this suggestions that Russia hopes to control Europe's alternative sources of natural gas.

Both notions of phosphate mercantilism and a gas cartel are merely informed speculation at this point, but the stakes are so high that these possibilities must be considered. While there may be no deeper motive behind recent moves with Morocco and Algeria, at a minimum the stakes and tensions are increasing. Because both Algeria and Morocco are fragile Nation-States, with active Islamist separatist movements, significant internal terrorist threats, and complicated ethnic/territorial problems, the potential for interruption in critical exports of phosphate, oil, and gas is increasing.


Fascinating in-depth article! I knew about Algeria's role as a supplier of natural gas to Europe but not about Morocco's production of phosphate.

Looking at the historical data in the Energy Export Databrowser it appears that Algeria's increasing production of Gas is unable to keep up with skyrocketing demand from the three top consumers: Spain, France and Italy. Here's the graph that shows the sum of production and consumption for all 4 nations combined:

For most of the time series, Algerian production increased at the same rate as demand in Spain, France and Italy. But things have gotten dangerously out of balance since about 2000. Looking at the individual graphs for Algeria, Spain, France and Italy it's hard to fathom how Algeria will have enough Gas to further expand LNG exports given that:

  1. North Sea gas production is now in serious decline.
  2. Internal consumption has yet to pick up in dramatic fashion in Algeria as has happened in all of the Middle East producers.

Looking at the charts it seems that Spain, France and Italy will be forced into a cozy relationship with Algeria, sucking up as much of the Algerian output as possible.

Figures 13 & 14 The import sources of gas to France.

Jonathan, France, Spain and Italy all have diversified sources of nat gas imports which I suggest you learn about before posting rubbish like this here again.

And whist North Sea gas production may peak next year its is not yet in serious decline.

You may want to spend some time reading this:

Euan: I don't think Jonathan's post was "rubbish" at all, and I think it's the kind of comment that should be discussed, rather than just dismissed. You can disagree with his Jonathan's contention that France, Spain, and Italy will be "forced" into a cozy relationship with Algeria, and he did overstate the current state of North Sea gas decline, but I don't think his overarching argument is off the mark--after all, North Sea gas will decline in the not-too-distant future. Natural Gas is less globally fungible due to infrastructure issues, as you know, than oil and the diversified nature of a nation's gas supply doesn't make a geographically proximate supplier unimportant. I think Jonathan's point is actually well taken, that a disruption to Algerian natural gas supplies would be highly significant to France, Italy, and Spain. Additionally, despite France's diversified supply, disruption to pipelines serving Spain or Italy would impact France because gas is highly fungible among neighbors that share significant pipeline infrastructure--Spain and Italy would bid up lost Algerian gas in an effort to maintain supply, and France (and other parts of Europe) would feel the impact. To my knowledge, existing LNG trains and associated infrastructure (esp. tankers and port infrastructure) are insufficient to make up lost pipeline supply by merely transferring to LNG. Likewise with disruption of LNG infrastructure--it can't be merely diverted to waiting pipelines...

I was in a bad mood.

If there was a serious disruption to Algerian gas exports it would have a massive effect throughout Europe and the world since the European market is highly interconnected. But this is like saying that a serious disruption to Saudi oil exports would have a major impact upon oil markets. So I'm really not sure what the point is.

Has something happened that makes the threat of such disruption more likely, and in particular more likely in Algeria than anywhere else? What about Egypt and Libya. And if terrorists were seriously intent on disrupting nat gas supplies why not blow up unguarded pipelines in Scotland or N Holland?

Of the thousands of miles of pipeline, most of it will be small diameter gas flow lines - if it gets blown up it would take them a day to repair it. The main targets would be the main arteries and gas processing plants and pumping stations - but those I imagine will be well guarded - like the Abqaiq complex in Saudi.

There has been low grade threat of terror activity in Algeria for so long as I can remember. The main base - Hassi Messoud - in the middle of the Sahara desert is heavily guarded by thousands of Algerian troops.


Point taken to do a little more homework here at TOD before posting.

Had I read your in-depth article on The European Gas Market I would not have made those off-the-cuff comments based on a single graphic.

This points out the problem with artificially grouping nations together without having a very good reason for doing so. Algeria, Spain, France & Italy do not constitute anything approaching a closed system as the graphic implies and I'll need to review the various groupings I have set up in the databrowser. (Groupings were one of the main requests from the initial batch of users.)

I should probably stick to groupings that are either geologic in nature like the North Sea or political in nature like the EU or OECD.

-- Jon

Jon - as I've said before many of your charts are useful for quick checks on exports. But I think you agree this one's not that helpful and could even be misleading for a reader not experienced enough to know what lies behind the numbers.

Figure 27 Destinations for Algerian pipeline gas exports.

Figure 28 Destinations for Algerian LNG gas exports.

The European gas market is complex with a high degree of interconnectivity of supplies. many countries would be affected by a failure of Algerian gas exports - not only those countries that actually receive Algerian gas directly.

But I'm still left wondering if the threat level in Algeria has some how increased significantly that shoudl make us more concerned now than before.

As explained above I was in a bad mood yesterday - sorry for being a bit gruff.


No offense taken. I understand how it can be frustrating to have to explain things over again when you've done such an excellent job of explaining them the first time.

We both agree that this particular chart is misleading and I'll be removing it. Part of the reason I've been posting so many charts is to gauge their usefulness and your comments let me know that this one in particular, and arbitrary groupings in general, are problematic. This is very valuable information for me as I definitely don't want to add to the confusion!

I hope to be adding more styles of charts in the future and I'll be looking to your work and that of others here at TOD for inspiration. A couple of ideas I'm working on include:

  • per capita plot option that displays import/export per capita
  • flow of money chart that multiplies import/export by the BP provided yearly price
  • fossil fuel use chart (superimposed timelines for coal, oil & gas (mtoe) and their sum)

I look forward to the continuing conversation and discussion about how best we can bring this information to the non-cognoscenti.

Happy Exploring!

-- Jon

We often focus too much on oil and not enough on natural gas or coal --oil depletion must be seen in context of the larger energy supply equation.

Similarly, in the real world, the entire energy sector itself is now strongly interacting with other scarce resources such as phosphate, water or farmland to create profoundly dangerous negative synergies. By their actions in Algeria and Morroco, it is clear that the United States, France and Russia all are doing their best to position themselves against such an outcome.

In my opinion, there is no greater potential for a "sleeper" or dark horse of a crisis to emerge than the interplay between the energy, food and fertilizer sectors --with phosphate and natural gas acting as eyes of the coming storm.

I have been covering agricultural commodities for some time now and the disturbing, disintegrating connections between fossil fuels, food and fertilizer are starting to come together like some revelation from the opening moments of a sci-fi disaster flick.

Some may not like the comparison, those who believe that markets tell resources to materialize will consider that last sentence extreme. And yet, we've really got to watch fertilizer because it is in this sector that the relationships between fossil fuels, food and politics will begin to explode apart.

Similarly, in the real world, the entire energy sector itself is now strongly interacting with other scarce resources such as phosphate, water or farmland to create profoundly dangerous negative synergies.

Exactly right. The uphill side of the oil age was driven by the same but positive synergies! I would love to see some young (or at least energetic) mind trace out the upside synergies in detail, not as an abstract academic exercise, but in order to give us a better insight into the "negative synergies" that are operating now. How closely does the unwinding mirror the winding? Far beyond just interesting.

I don't think they invert like your saying. Here is why. To use Old Testament slang :)

Oil production beget NPK beget demand for Phosphorous
Low oil production beget corn ethanol beget NPK beget demand for Phosphrous.
Heavy Sour crude beget demand for NG for coking beget no NG for NPK and distilling beget expensive corn ethanol

The problem is demand created by more oil actually increases and oil suppy decreases it does not decrease so the less oil we have the more demand we have for all the other critical commodities with the center being NPK and NG.

Oh crap :)

But this is why I've said we won't go down because of oil depletion partial substition of biofuels increased EROI etc are going to result in us running out of cheap NPK or NG before we run out of oil.

Once cheap NG and NPK fertilizer are gone the party is over. And I bet the price increases in these once they become critical will blow your mind.

We can substitute for oil esp in transportation we may not "like" changing our lifestyle but we cannot easily substitute for NG and NPK.

My UK farmer friends saw the biofuels impact on fertiliser prices starting if I remember ~18mo ago (they must do forward buying) because, initially, USA setaside was being brought to cultivation and US merchants apparently had bought a lot of world potassium. The mines (e.g. USA, Russia) apparently are doing catch up.
Rock phosphate however is likely the more longer term critical limiting factor.
We need to try to consider separately NPK from one another. 2% of world energy is devoted to fertiliser N production. 5% of NG goes to ammonia production (energy + feedstock). N fertiliser production could in future command a higher priority as needed? Reasonable estimates suggest a doubling of N production needed in the next 50 years. The world must increasingly re-cycle all the soil nutrients.
A lot of useful stuff is at the IFA. They are sanguine about future phosphate just now, see quote and link below.
I would like to see better estimates of the relative losses to the environment from agricultural systems of each mineral resource.
Generally speaking, Asian mainstay cereals production re-cycles more NPK in situ , especially P & K, and needs smaller annual replenishment with synthesised N, compared with N American, European or similar agriculture systems.
World competition from biofuels for agricultural resources must put strain on future food production.

Approximately 4% of total annual natural gas consumption in the USA and West Europe is used to produce raw materials, especially ammonia. In some countries, however, the use of gas for ammonia production accounts for a large proportion of national gas consumption. In India, for example, this proportion is roughly 40%.

Very good article, again. Thank you very much.

Personally I find it interesting, that I haven't seen any cost calculations comparing short term resource-mercantilism vs. closed-loop nutrient recycling (e.g. phosphorus) domestically.

Granted, if one plays purely on the grand geo-strategic (resource) chessboard, it makes more sense to import P than to just recycle it, but just importing it alone also makes no sense in the long run. Recycling systemically is the key.

Thus, are there any governmental or business development happening on this front (i.e. productive sanitation systems, reducing P input to cattle feed and thus waste, reduction of P into wastewater systems, etc) in OECD countries?

Surely this kind of systemic issue calls for systemic solutions, right?

Or are we still so far away from expensive phosphorus prices that it doesn't make economical sense to start planning for large-scale closed loop recycling of phosphorus?

Inquiring minds want to know :)

I've wondered about the ability of closed-loop nutrient cycle practices to scale myself. The USGS comment that there's "no substitute for rock phosphates in agriculture" struck me--I was tempted to add a qualifier "in modern methods of industrial farming." I know that there are substitutes in existing small-scale, organic farming practices, but I don't know 1) how well these can scale economically and 2) how these impact yield.

Islamic fundamentalists that carry out terrorism are not the friends of either the governments of Morocco or Algeria. The Western Sahara has been under a UN watch with 3,000 peacekeepers for 18 years. Morocco is the historical owner of the territory and the territory is controlled by Morocco and that control has the support of the practically all of the Moroccan people. There is a autonomy plan before the UN, supported by the US, France and others that would resolve the issue and allow the 100,000 people living in camps for 30 years in Algeria to return to their former home and have governmental assistance. The alternative presented by the Polisario is a non starter. Nobody in the world wants a "country with 100,000 people that could easily be controlled by terrorists.
Both Morocco and Algeria have sound state policy reasons to resolve the Western Sahara issue peacefully, and stop Islamic fundamentalist terrorism now.

I agree that the states of Morocco and Algeria have sound reasons to want the Western Sahara issue resolved, peacefully. They also, however, have sound state policy reasons to want the situation resolved in their favor, and that is probably mutually exclusive between Morocco and Algeria. With pressure from Nicolas Sarkozy and others, the scheduled plebiscite for Western Sahara has recently been delayed--again, and prospects of Morocco actually allowing Western Sahara to gain any level of economic control to the West of the giant sand berm they've constructed for defense (and where all the Phosphate is located) is slim to none. I think it's precisely because there are so few people in Western Sahara that the area has such potential for proxy-conflict, whether that's between Morocco and Algeria (with or without US/Russian funding & arms), between externally funded Islamist groups like AQIM, or merely by existing Polisario rebels acting in an environment of superempowered individuals.

The interest of the region as a whole is best served by peaceful resolution of the situation in Western Sahara, but in many ways it is also a zero-sum game: either Morocco, Algeria, or Islamist groups can best serve their interests, at the expense of the interest of the region as a whole, by seeking to "win" the conflict, not achieve peace. History suggests that, when faced with such a situation, humans try to win--especially when they think they have a good chance of doing so due to backing of a major external power...

Also of note: there is some prospect for offshore oil production in Western Sahara (probably nothing monumental or comparable to their phosphate reserves), but this is currently on hold as the UN has ruled that Morocco does not have the sovereignty required to authorize exploitation of the territory.

It is not a zero sum game to not allow Islamic fundamentalists to gain control of the Western Sahara. Morocco has already "won" the territory. 2/3 of the population of the territory is Moroccan. The area has a Moroccan history of many centuries. The 35 million Moroccans consider the Western Sahara Moroccan. The "plebiscite" issue is a joke. Who should be in the plebiscite? Only the 100,000 camp people? Or all the people in the territory, which is 2/3 Moroccan? The autonomy proposal of Morocco, with protection of human rights is the only plan that has wheels. The cold war is over, The Polisario is a product of the cold war and is controlled by a cadre of self appointed rulers that have no means to support themselves except entities that want to fund their position.
The national interests of the U.S, France, Spain, and Europe in general, are all backing the Moroccan autonomy proposal now. Morocco is the gatekeeper to Europe. It has been a friend of the U.S. since the beginning of this Country. And it's a fait acompli.

The conflict between the states of Morocco and the Islamic fundamentalists is definitely a zero-sum game as their goals are mutually exclusive--if the state of Morocco wins, the Islamists lose.

As for Western Saharan autonomy being a fait acompli, autonomy without resource control is illusory (this is the proposal), and autonomy with any meaningful degree of resource control won't happen. This is precisely why Kerr-Mcgee pulled out of oil exploration off Western Sahara--the critical issue of resource control hasn't been resolved. As long as there are people in Western Sahara who think the resources belong to them, but who don't have true control over them, there is significant potential for a proxy conflict. The issue of who takes part in the plebiscite is one of "Colonial Cartography." The groups struggling for control have not, and will continue to not care about what lines in the sand the Spanish drew in past centuries, so I agree that any plebiscite would be a joke, but so is any hope for true peace without reconciling the territorial claims of non-state groups with resource control. The Moroccan autonomy plan won't resolve that issue, so won't really reduce tensions. Morocco may well be able to keep a lid on tensions by force alone, but they haven't resolved the underlying--and ongoing--source of those tensions. As with other geopolitical feedback loops, as Morocco's phosphate reserves become more and more valuable, this will only stoke existing tensions further--at some point, whether by indigenous effort or proxy conflict, Morocco will no longer be able to prevail by force alone. When that will be, however, is highly uncertain...

Phosphate, it's sort of like the oil. Does the oil belong to the Arabs in Kuwait(Polisario), or to all the Arabs in the vicinity including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan(Morroco)? What about Eqypt(Algeria)?


Scale is of the essence. Even organic farming can't rely exclusively on recycled fertilizers -- provided the stuff is 'mined' rather than synthesised, it's considered kosher and 'natural'.

So I think what are needed here are hard data: just HOW MUCH fertilizer is required to generate HOW MANY food calories from plants grown on HOW MANY hectares of land? Must do some googling ...

My understanding is that the closest organic farming can get to a closed nutrient cycle is with integration of human manure from consumption of the agricultural product back into the same field. This is very challenging to scale--it seems to work for intensive plots of land in China that have been farmed continuously for at least a thousand years without any record of addition of outside nutrients, but even then probably only slows the nutrient decay to an acceptably low rate, doesn't actually close the cycle.

Our ancestors depended on periodic flooding to replenish the soil.

Also the use of manure from animals grazed outside the fields works to concentrate nutrients.

I think if you look you will see that the use of muddy water, external manure and flooding
of the river basins works to inject more minerals into the cultivated areas they are not closed.

Also of course fish/chicken and other animal parts are critical inputs.
Given that the decay rate is low small additions like this are sufficient to keep the fertility up.

I've wondered about the ability of closed-loop nutrient cycle practices to scale myself [...] I know that there are substitutes in existing small-scale, organic farming practices, but I don't know 1) how well these can scale economically and 2) how these impact yield.

According to Dr Google, it looks as though organic farming can't survive on recycling alone:

Are nutrient input and output in organic farming balanced?

Organically managed plots exhibit higher deficits in nutrients than conventional plots. [...]

Organic farming systems largely avoid the external input of mineral fertilizers. On the other hand nutrients are withdrawn from the soil by the crop. Accordingly, the nutrient-balance in the organic systems becomes negative for the main elements nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

The nitrogen balance was negative for all systems. This means N-fertilization was less than the withdrawal by the crop. Nitrogen mineralisation, N-fixation by legume crops and nitrogen precipitated with rain, however, were not considered in this calculation.

Phosphorus in the conventional systems showed a surplus, whereas in the organic systems the P-balance was negative.

Only the minerally-fertilized plots showed a surplus in potassium.


Organic agriculture, as practiced in the US, forbids the use of un-composted manure of any kind and humanure is verboten. Jeff is suggesting recycling the nutrients in humanure to make a partially closed system. See Farmers of Forty Centuries by Franklin King to see how not to "do" humanure. See The Humanure Handbook by Joe Jenkins to see the right way of incorporating humanure into small-scale agriculture.

Hello JeffVail,

Thxs so much for this keypost, I have been hoping and asking for TopTODer examination of this NPK issue for sometime now. As other TODers have already noted upthread: the flowrate nexus of energy, water, NPK, and the other required trace elements, all comes together to quite visibly reveal their interactions in the balance of our food supply.

I have posted much before on Morocco's phosphates and ideal geo-location for sealane control, plus a brief examination of their history. Additionally, by examining the UN FAO Fertilizer Forecast from the basis of Hubbert Downslope analysis: I have posted some speculation as to where this might be headed.

IMO, the general public is slowly grasping a beginning understanding of FF's depletion, but the FF supply chain is nothing compared to the total food supply chain complexity starting with global I-NPK & sulphur extraction, beneficiation, global distribution, and so on. As posted much before: we need a rapid ramping of O-NPK recycling.

NPK are Elements [Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium]: there are No Substitutes to leverage photosynthesis above a Liebig Minimum. I-NPK [Industrial], O-NPK [Organic], are just different forms to deliver the Elements to the topsoil.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

From your posts I know where the industrial nitrogen based fertizer comes from (synthesized from nat. gas) and the phosphorus comes from (mining in various countries, USA much comes from Florida), but where does the industrial potassium originate?

Is the potassium also likely to someday have supply problems? Thanks for the info.

Mark in St. Louis, MO


This article dated 22 April 2008 might help answer your question (hat tip: Dr Google):


The magnitude and growth rate of demand from China still drives global commodity prices. But in the fertilizer sector, where China this month has had to agree to a price for potash more than double what it paid last year, the inflexibility of Chinese demand for food has made it difficult for the country's negotiators to hang on to the commercial advantages they are accustomed to enjoying from being the world's largest consumer.

Canada. Apparently they have a large ancient salt bed there in Saskatchewan with mine-worthy quantities of this water soluble mineral:

Hello Mbnewtrain,

The USGS is your Google friend [2-page PDF Warning]:
2008 Potash summary
Think Canpotex and Uralkali, these potash [potassium, K] cartels own the reserves, therefore control the flowrates. IMO, more potash powerful than OPEC's similar flowrate control over oil.

The Qinghai district of Tibet (essentially the north part of western Quebec, administered separately from 'outer Tibet', formerly the Amdo district of Tibet) has lots of potash in Qinghai lake. Don't know why the Chinese haven't done a better job of extracting potash from it.

I think you make a critical point, Bob: there is a high degree of interdependence among the various parts of our resource supply chains. Critically, as several of them approach (or pass) peak production rate, the interconnections will be additive in the effective rate of decline. Declining oil production will decrease our ability to effectively produce mineral fertilizers, and declining mineral fertilizers will increase the decline rate of oil production--my main thesis is that decline in EACH of these resources will individually act as a catalyst for a whole set of geopolitical feedback loops, and that the resulting geopolitical instability will disrupt production in ALL of these resources.

It is very interesting, especially in the light of this release from LEAP/E2020 for the 2nd half of 2008:

"6. Arab world: Pro-Western regimes go adrift / 60 percent risk of socio-political explosion on Egypt-Morocco axis"
Unfortunately without subscription, there is no further explanation to this.

Hello Jeff,

Yep, cascading blowbacks interacting are a real bitch. Just like FFs, the varied N, P, and K reserves maybe be huge [but still depleting], but it doesn't matter. It is the flowrates, baby. Leanan and others, beside me, have already posted weblinks where some areas cannot afford sufficient I-NPK to produce lofty harvest yields. With insufficient local O-NPK recycling--> the soil will eventually get exhausted much sooner to some Liebig Minimum. This is then equivalent to trying to get seeds to sprout and grow on a concrete airport runway.

Job specialization is dependent upon food surpluses. We should be doing all we can to make farmers long-term sustainable plus encourage lots more gardening postPeak. I am sure going to miss long distance bananas and other imported goodies. :(

Just got back from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. We're building a school over there and hopefully start a permaculture project over by the school.

Here are some photos that may remind us of the human face behind this story:


Great pictures...Morocco is truly beautiful--so much potential, but so many problems. Driving across the High Atlas was probably my favorite part of my last visit. Unfortunately, I've never been to Algeria, but I've heard that the coastline between Algiers and Oran is about as beautiful as it comes... One thing that struck me in person was how sharp the Arab/Berber divide seemed. Especially in Marrakesh and in the Atlas, most people I spoke with were very clear that they weren't Arab, didn't like Arabs, and felt slighted by Arab rule.

Great photographs,Ransu.Landscapes depicted are classic cases of land degradation due to over grazing.Goats are probably the most destructive animal imaginable and sheep are not far behind.
The Flinders Ranges region in South Australia is like this and has been equally abused.

Jeff, much of this strikes me as alarmist speculation. Algeria has gas it wants to sell - and hey Europe is a ready market just to the the North. There has been "terrorist trouble" in Algeria for so long as I can remember. Do you mention the fact it is a former French colony? (I believe).

One thing all Americans need to awaken to is the fact that international terrorism has been around for many decades - and much of it was sponsored by America.

The thing that really interests me right now is the export destinations of oil from major export lands. Algerian gas will most likely continue to be exported to Europe. But what about Iranian Oil - where is it going these days? Sudanese oil? And a lot of African oil - the Chinese are in there tying up supply contracts.

I'd always thought Morocco was pretty peaceful - much like Ireland and Spain?

I don't think it's an issue of Algeria "wanting" to sell its gas to Europe or not, but rather their capability to do so (though I think suggestions that they could enter into a cartel relationship is clearly warranted, as they already do precisely this with oil through their membership in OPEC). To the extent that it's possible to over-generalize and suggest that Americans need to remember that "international terrorism has been around for many decades," everyone would be well served to remember that lines drawn in the sand by European colonialists usually have little or no relationship to nations, ethnic groups, ideologies, tribes, etc. This, combined with the catalyst of global scarcity of energy and fertilizer, and the recent trend toward energy infrastructure targeting, is what creates the threat. It's just like what is happening in Iraq or Nigeria: they "want" to sell their oil, but are finding it is a bit more difficult than that.

This is the danger of geopolitical feedback loops in oil production: in contrast to geological decline, the individual problem events are either uncertain and/or "solvable." What is neither uncertain nor "solvable" is the escalating catalyst to geopolitical tensions in general created by increasing scarcity. If it's alarmist to highlight areas where these geopolitical tensions may manifest themselves (and they will almost certainly manifest themselves somewhere--it's just a question of where), then I'll accept that label as I think it is valuable...

Thanks for an interesting article. I looked to see what I could find about phosphate production in the US.

According to USGS, 99% of US imports of phosphate rock are from Morocco.

This is a USGS report showing recent US production and imports. This is a similar older report. It looks like US production dropped from 45,900 thousand metric tons in 1997 to 29,700 thousand metric tones in 2007. US imports in 2007 were only 2,800 metric tons in 2007. Consumption has been falling, since imports have not been rising nearly as much as US production has been declining.

Consumption has been falling, since imports have not been rising nearly as much as US production has been declining.

So presumably this has had a disasterous impact upon agriculture and crop yields? I'd be interested in that chart - showing how falling use of phosphate fertilizer is having negative impact upon US agricultural product.

According to the report the US is a major exporter of phosphate fertilizer but exports have dropped as China and India are now producing and exporting their own fertilizer. So no negative impact on US agriculture but the usual pattern of outsourcing production of bulk chemicals to China and india.

'Diamond" Joe Gutnick recently got backing from his financiers in New York to go ahead with a new mine that will produce 5 million tonnes of phosphates a year. He's famous in Australia as a prominent member of the Jewish community who lost millions in diamond mines. Considering who's money he lost, I think this time around you can say that it is a pretty safe investment.,25197,23823594-643,00.html

The Rock phosphates are only part of the equation.

An idealized plant would contain:

Nitrogen 5%
Potassium 5%
Calcium 2%
Sulphur 1%
Magnesium 0.75%

Trace elements 0.05%

Nitrogen is actually the least in the planets soils,(average {{+ -}1.5%) and not enough for more than one or two virgin crops, and the least stable when added to the soil.

After peak gas and Nitrogen decline the Phosphate (minor plant requirements) will not do the job.

Peak Oil and Gas throws everybody out of bed


I just noticed the following at:

The production of phosphate rock peaked in 1988 at a level of 166 million tonnes product, falling to 125 million tonnes today. Production in the FSU has fallen from 39 million tonnes in 1988 to 11 million tonnes.

Seems like the industry is pretty aware of its own peaking, and perhaps unaware of the meaning thereof.

Not everything fits the Hubert peak theory. From the USGS link on Phosphate given:

In 2007, U.S. phosphate rock production fell below 30 million tons for the first time in more than 40 years, owing to lower production in Florida. Additionally, phosphate companies in Florida used a substantial amount of phosphate rock from stocks. One mine in Florida reopened after being closed for 18 months, but its output was offset by mine closures that occurred in 2006. China has surpassed the United States as the leading producer of phosphate rock in the world.

So, there were issues with a mine. Before those, production was increasing. There are simply too few players to say that there is an issue of a peaking resource. I see no data to strongly tie the rate of use of Phosphate to the production of food either. It says the USA is the largest consumer of Phosphate in the world. India and China both have over two times the irrigated land area of the USA

And judging by the populations, I'm guessing they also produce more food. But they use less Phosphate. I don't doubt that you can prove that corn production in the USA from 2005 to 2007 had sensitivity to Phosphate availability, but you can in no way do so in general terms.

Furthermore, the reserve base at 50M is over two orders of magnitude greater than the yearly usage at 147k. In 100 years, I'm sure they'll have that edible, burnable GM algae growing in seawater, and suffice it to say I'm not too concerned about that time.

But to say that right now we are starting the Hubert peak decline in Phosphate production would imply that extractable resources are like 6M (doing the integral in my head), which is way off base from either the reserves (18M) or the reserve base (50M) that the USGS gives.

Do you (anyone really) think that the Hubert peak given for Phosphate production there is seriously a tenable argument?

Thanks for the post, there's a lot of good research and information here, as always. But I am skeptical of this one point for the stated reasons.

I'm not sure about how closely phosphate production will follow a Hubbert lineraization--the data behind this comes from a prior post here:

The data presented there seems fairly compelling to me, but far from certain. I don't think the one mine in Florida in 2006-2007 is dispositive, as US phosphate production has been in fairly consistent decline since 1980. We'll really have to wait to see if world production can ramp up in light of current price increases--I couldn't find historical price data for rock phosphate, so I'm not sure if the decline in US production since 1980 is due to low prices from readily available imports, or due to "peaking." Like most "peaking," we'll probably see it with certainty only in the rear-view mirror: if the 200% price increase this year holds up for a few years, and world production still declines, then I'd say the evidence is strong that we've past a Hubbert-type peak. How many years depends--I also don't know how long it takes to start up a new phosphate mine from scratch, but my WAG would be 3 to 6 years depending on the level of regulation and permitting required (as in 3 years in China, 6 years in the US).

Hello TODers,

I thought I would repost again the following:

Recall that some NPK-newbies wanted some more information. IMO, the following link is mostly a "Hurrah, aren't we just Great PR release".
Fertiliser industry's role in food security praised

He said the world consumption of fertilisers witnessed a major growth amounting to eight per cent during the period from 2005 to last year which equals seven million tonnes annually.

Forecasts indicate that demand for fertilisers will increase at an annual rate of around 2.9pc during the period from last year to 2012 which means doubling the annual rate witnessed in the last five years of the previous decade.

The world fertiliser consumption will reach around 173m tonnes this year and this rate will increase to reach 193m tonnes in 2012.

As Usual: No mention of the Hubbert Downslope and ELM effects possibly making these projections very difficult to make as the population grows 70 million/year.

I think the UN FAO does a better job of pointing out the possible difficulties ahead if one carefully analyzes this document with a critical thinking mindset [57 page PDF Warning]:
Current world fertilizer trends and outlook to 2011/12

[Page 14]...High oil prices could depress the use of oil-based fertilizers which have been behind much of the increase in farm production during the past half century.

[Page 15]...Freight rates have become a more important factor in agricultural markets than in the past. Increased fuel costs, stretched shipping capacity, port congestion, and longer trade routes due to altered trade patterns, have pushed up shipping costs...The impact of transport costs on fertilizer prices will grow as fertilizer is produced in fewer localities close to raw materials and ample energy availability.

[Page 15]...The decline in the United States dollar against most currencies since 2005 has made imports from the United States cheaper and lessens the true impact of the rise in world prices. This is a major reason behind the brisk world import demand that, in spite of high prices, shows little sign of retreat.

[Page 17]...Conversion of grain areas to vegetable and fruit production will translate into higher fertilizer demand as average application rates for the latter is about double those for grain crops.

[Page 20]...At the same time, concerns about the impact of nitrogen and phosphorous losses to the environment will call for increased recycling of organic nutrient sources.

[Page 29]...Nitrogen and phosphate production capacity exists in only 11 and 6 countries respectively. High transport costs in land locked countries contribute to prohibitively high fertilizer prices. An array of other factors which further limit input and output markets, severely constrain fertilizer use.

[Page 34]...Nitrogen use efficiency is declining as nitrogen fertilizer consumption increases faster than grain production.
Yields and nitrogen use efficiency should be increased simultaneously.
I believe I have discussed and newslink-addressed multiple times all of the issues listed above with a Peak-Everything-Outlook that is not included in many agricultural reports. Please feel free to examine my postings in the archives for further details.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hi Bob,

For anyone interested in fertiliser/fertilizer here is the site for the International Fertilizer Industry Association with lots of free information.

Story today on BBC radio 4, Farming Today says that all the humanure (aka biosolids) for 2008 is sold out for one sewage treatment plant. Apparently the cost of using this is about one fifth, so already being used in large scale on this side of the pond.

Solar only mentioned once? Solar is a silver BB for North Africa. Sorry for pointing out the obvious.

If not for exporting, then certainly for cheap domestic power.

With cheap reliable power, you can attract many lucrative industries. It's a serious development potential for Algeria and Marocco.

Thanks for this interesting article. I think though that you overstated some of the issues.

The US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement - was a direct result of 9/11 and Morocco's decision to align itself firmly as a US ally and provide intelligence cooporation. This was a sort of reward, awarded also to Jordan and Egypt. Reward - for whom? Following the FTA imports from the US to Morocco trippled and they by far exceed Moroccan exports to the US - which are growing, but at a slow rate. So it's the Moroccan elite and middlemen, as well as US companies, who did well out of this.

Whether phosphates played a part in the signing of the FTA is a good guess - but keep in mind the FTA was negoitated long before anyone thought seriously of biofuels.

I know too little about Russian involvement in Algeria but I have a feeling that good relations with the EU count for far more than whatever Russian patronage can offer.

Islamic militants - yes they are operating in both countries but to call this an insurgency is, in my view, an exaggeration.

In Algeria, President Bouteflika succeeded in ending the civil war in 2002. Bouteflika proved a genious in using state force, compromise, negotiation, and political cunning. The result is very impressive, and one does not need to be a Bouteflika fan to acknoweldge this.

It is true that militant splinters remained, and are still active. But there is a huge difference between the Islamist movement with broad popular appeal, of the 1992-2002 war and these small and isolated factions. This is even more true in Morocco - yes, there were a number of suicide attacks, but overall the country is not experiencing unrest - so far. However, if the social situation deteriorates, for example bread prices go up - you will see riots and probably more militant attacks in both countries.

You talk about ethnic divides in Morocco and Algeria, and to be sure the Berber/Arab divide is considerble. But what does it mean in practice? There are many faultlines in any society which do not translate to violence or security issues. You need to back these issues with something more substantial if you want to say this is a problem with energy/fertiliser implications.