How our vast reserves of shale gas can feed millions

One of the most ignored benefits flowing from the tapping of our nation's vast shale gas reserves has been its key role in helping to grow the bountiful American crops that feed the world.

Fortune Magazine reports that producing fertilizer depends on cheap and plentiful natural gas - an "ingredient" that has become far cheaper than other forms of energy as judged by its costs per BTU because American companies, such as Range Resources, have liberated the gas from the rocks beneath our feet.

The report focuses on one company, Agrium, but the facts are applicable to all fertilizer companies to varying degrees.

Natural gas represents 80% of the cost of manufacturing Agrium's primary product, nitrogen fertilizer -- and the price of natural gas has fallen 50% since 2008. With U.S. gas production rising because of massive, recently exploited "shale gas" fields in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas, the International Energy Agency expects a gas "glut" to further depress prices in 2011.

Agrium's costs are dropping -- but that isn't the case for many of its competitors. Natural gas is difficult to transport, so new supplies in North America don't have much impact on prices elsewhere. "That gives Agrium a real competitive advantage," says mutual fund manager David Jordan, whose Agrium shares are among the largest positions in his Tributary Growth Opportunities Fund. Agrium's competitors in Eastern Europe are paying prices twice as high. Indeed, according to a Citigroup report on shale gas and its impact on the chemical industry, Agrium is the best positioned of all major fertilizer companies to benefit from the falling price of natural gas.

Much of the world faces tightened supplies of food. Drought in Russia and Argentina, for example, are impacting crops grown in those two exporting nations. Booming Chinese and emerging markets demand is exacerbating the problem. As nations rise, their consumption of protein rises - that means meat that comes from animals that eat large amounts of grain. Ironically, the ethanol lobby has made things worse since so much corn flows to ethanol "factories" instead of down the throats of chickens, pigs, and cattle. Corn is a crop that is voracious in its consumption of fertilizer (and water). The ethanol lobby consumes food that was meant to, ultimately, feed humanity. Even Al Gore gets it.

But, I digress.

The point to keep in mind when environmental zealots rap the shale gas industry over spurious claims regarding fracking (a process used to tap the vast amount of gas) and the environment is not just that they are trying to prevent us from reducing our trade imbalance, starve terror producing nations of funds, and warm our homes and power our factories and utilities.

They are also placing at serious risk the food that supplies millions, if not billions of men, women, and children around the world.

A bonus benefit comes from how shale gas can be used to transport these crops: diesel fuel that powers trucks can be produced using shale gas-a fuel that the New York Times has rightly called "extraordinarily cheap" due to the "vast supplies of natural gas from shale formations in North America."

The alchemy again comes from the ingenuity that drives American free-enterprise. Fracking was developed by American business not by government programs, and the technology behind turning gas into diesel fuel also comes from the fertile minds of businessmen.

Meanwhile, endless billions of taxpayer dollars have funded floundering pie-in-the sky, uneconomical and wasteful "green energy" projects that could not survive without the life-support (subsidies, mandates, carbon-killing rules and regulations that boost the prices of energy for Americans) provided by some of our politicians.

Why? I provided some possible answers here - and they involve not just dreamers but also schemers.