Too much carbon dioxide here, too little there

In a world awash in too much carbon dioxide, it’s remarkable that some places have too little of the stuff.

Britain recently warned food producers to prepare for a 400-per-cent rise in the price of carbon-dioxide because of a shortage.

image: The Guardian

Carbon dioxide is important to food producers because it’s used to put the fizz into beer and sodas and stun poultry and pigs before slaughter. Some producers warn that there could be a (gasp) shortage of Christmas turkeys.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson brushed aside worries over a lack of turkeys. His government has extending emergency support to subsidize the increased cost of CO2 and avert a shortage of poultry and meat.

The shortage of CO2 has been triggered by soaring costs of natural gas.

What has the shortage of natural gas got to do with the shortage of C02?

Well, it turns out that CO2 is a by-product of the European fertilizer industry which uses natural gas as an input. They make it by combining nitrogen in the air with hydrogen from the natural gas to produce ammonia. Ammonia is then used to create fertilizer, and CO2 is left over.

Why is the cost of natural gas soaring?

Natural gas prices have spiked this year as economies reopened from COVID-19 lockdowns. The high demand for liquefied natural gas in Asia pushed down supplies to Europe, sending shock waves through industries reliant on the energy source.

Inventories of natural gas are low because production hasn’t caught up with demand. Uncertainties that occurred during the global pandemic made producers reluctant to invest in new drilling for natural gas.

Canadian natural gas inventories are at five-year lows. Exports from North American LNG facilities are also running at peak volume to meet global demand, draining supplies.

This is bad news for B.C. users of natural gas as prices will increase an average of $8 per month in the Interior starting in October.

This is good news for investors in B.C.’s proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects for export to Asia as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But isn’t the use of natural gas to produce fertilizer a dumb idea when natural gas is a valuable source of heating for homes?

Yes, it is a dumb idea because fertilizer can also be made from potash. Potash is abundant in Saskatchewan, one of the largest sources in the world. Potash deposits are left over from a large inland sea that once filled North America. 

However if CO2 isn’t produced as a by-product of making fertilizer, where will  the food industry get CO2 from?

Good question. With all of that CO2 in the atmosphere and a shortage on the ground, there must be a way to take it from the atmosphere.

There is. It’s called carbon capture and it works by passing air laden with CO2 over chemicals. The problem in the past has been that the cost of production of CO2 exceeds the price it can be sold for. But with the price of CO2 soaring, carbon capture could be profitable.

And why should I care about the price of CO2?

Because I use it for making beer.  Good thing I topped up my tank before the price hikes.

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