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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Peak Phosphorus

by Bill Totten (December 16 2007)

In an article I posted here on December 9th entitled "What Will We Eat as the Oil Runs Out?" Richard Heinberg refers to the peaking of another valuable, but finite, resource:

"Phosphorus is set to become much more scarce and expensive, according to a study by Patrick Dery, a Canadian agriculture and environment analyst and consultant. Using data from the US Geological Survey, Dery performed a peaking analysis on phosphate rock, similar to the techniques used by petroleum geologists to forecast declines in production from oilfields. He found that 'we have already passed the phosphate peak (of production)
for United States (1988) and for the World (1989)'. We will not completely run out of rock phosphate any time soon, but we will be relying on lower-grade ores as time goes on, with prices inexorably rising."

Heinberg was referring to "Peak phosphorus" by Patrick Dery and Bart Anderson posted last August 13th at .

Dery and Anderson point out that phosphorus is a very special non-renewable resource, a nutrient essential for agriculture, and describe its role and nature as follows:

"Phosphorus (chemical symbol P) is an element necessary for life. Because phosphorus is highly reactive, it does not naturally occur as a free element, but is instead bound up in phosphates. Phosphates typically occur in inorganic rocks.

"As farmers and gardeners know, phosphorus is one of the three major nutrients required for plant growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Fertilizers are labelled for the amount of N-P-K they contain (for example 10-10-10).

"Most phosphorus is obtained from mining phosphate rock. Crude phosphate is now used in organic farming, whereas chemically treated forms such as superphosphate, triple superphosphate, or ammonium phosphates are used in non-organic farming.

"Philip H Abelson writes in Science: 'The current major use of phosphate is in fertilizers. Growing crops remove it and other nutrients from the soil ... Most of the world's farms do not have or do not receive adequate amounts of phosphate. Feeding the world's increasing population will accelerate the rate of depletion of phosphate reserves.' and '...resources are limited, and phosphate is being dissipated. Future generations ultimately will face problems in obtaining enough to exist'.

"It is sobering to note that phosphorus is often a limiting nutrient in natural ecosystems. That is, the supply of available phosphorus limits the size of the population possible in those ecosystems."

Dery goes on to apply the technique developed by M King Hubbert for Peak Oil to data available from the United States Geological Survey for phosphorus production in the following:

* The small Pacific island nation of Nauru, a former phosphate exporter.

* The United States, a major phosphate producer.

* The world.

He applied the Hubbert technique first on data from Nauru to see whether he could have predicted the year of its peak phosphate production in 1973. Satisfied with the results, he applied the method to United States and the world. He estimates that US peak phosphorus occurred in 1988 and for the world in 1989.

I was curious WHY we've gone well past the production peak of a resource so essential to our food supply, and I think I found the answer in a part of "Creating the Third World", Chapter 10 of
A Green History of the World (Penguin, 1991) by Clive Ponting. Here it is:

"Mineral exploitation has also been an important factor in the creation of the Third World . . .

". . . European demand for resources was not confined to metal ores. In the late nineteenth century the use of fertilizers to increase agricultural output rose dramatically. The United States had its own internal sources of supply but Europe turned to Morocco and Tunisia and also the large guano deposits off the Pacific coast of South America. The latter were originally part of Bolivia but Chile's victory in the war of 1881 (fought over the deposits) gave it control of the coast and the offshore guano islands and turned Bolivia info a landlocked country. The guano was worked in dreadful conditions by Chinese labourers; Chile was soon exporting over one million tons a year and the tax on the exports made up over eighty per cent of the government's revenue. The British empire was dependent on external supplies until the discovery in the early twentieth century of huge phosphate deposits in the Pacific on Nauru and Ocean Island. This opened up the prospect of an easily accessible and cheap source of fertilizer, with which to increase agricultural output from Australia and New Zealand, for the benefit not just of their economies but also that of Britain, which relied heavily on imported food from the empire. The story of these two islands illustrates in dramatic form many of the consequences of the developed world's demand for resources and the far-reaching impact it could have both on the environment and the people of the Third World.

"Ocean Island was small (three miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide), covered in lush, tropical vegetation and inhabited by about 2,000 Banabans following a typically Polynesian way of life. Nauru was slightly bigger (eight-and-a-half square miles) with about 1,400 people. Ocean Island was formally annexed by Britain in 1901 whereas Nauru was a German possession until 1914. The islands consisted almost entirely of solid phosphate deposits, perhaps the richest in the world. In 1900 the British owned Pacific Islands Company bought the rights to all minerals on Ocean Island in return for a payment of GBP 50 a year (in practice made in over-priced company trade goods) in a 'treaty' of dubious legality - made with the local chief even though it was well understood that he did not have authority to lease land belonging to other individuals. The company began to export large quantities of phosphates - shipments from Ocean Island amounted to 100,000 tons a year by 1905. Mining rights on Nauru were obtained from the German authorities and, after the necessary works were completed by Chinese labourers, mining began there in 1907. On both islands the company did not employ the islanders but brought in about 1,000 outsiders to work as labourers, about eighty Europeans to supervise operations and a detachment of Fijian police to keep order. In 1919 the company was bought out and the British, Australian and New Zealand governments established the jointly owned British Phosphate Commission to take over the work and provide them with phosphate at cost price (and therefore well below the world market price).

"By the early 1920s mining was producing about 600,000 tons of phosphates a year and it was evident to the native inhabitants what was happening to their islands as a result. The operations involved clearing away the vegetation and stripping out the top fifty feet or so of land, leaving an uninhabitable wasteland of jagged pinnacles on which nothing would grow. It was obvious that if the mining continued the islands would be ruined. Seeking to safeguard their future, the Banabans refused to sell or lease any more land to the Commission. But the pressure from Australia and New Zealand for cheap phosphate was growing. In 1927 the British government authorised deep mining over the whole of Nauru and the next year took powers to confiscate all land from the Banabans that they refused to make available for mining. By the 1930s phosphate output had reached about one million tons a year. On the outbreak of war with Japan the Europeans and most of the Chinese labourers were evacuated but the islanders were left behind. The Japanese occupied both islands and transported the natives to the Caroline Islands. Before the war the British authorities had considered removing the Banabans from Ocean Island in order to further extend mining operations and the Japanese action provided a convenient opportunity. The Banabans were not allowed to return and were resettled on Rambi Island (part of Fiji), 1,500 labourers were brought in to reopen the phosphate works and in 1947 deep mining over the whole of Ocean Island was authorised. The Nauru islanders were allowed home after the war, but in a second class capacity. Like the 1,300 Chinese labourers brought to the island, the natives were excluded from the company facilities (shops and recreation), which were restricted to the elite white workers. Throughout the 1950s about one million tons of phosphate a year were being extracted from the islands, rising to nearly three million tons a year by the mid-1960s. It was clear that at this rate the deposits would soon be exhausted. The last shipment from Ocean Island was made in 1980 and the Nauru deposits were then only expected to last until the 1990s. In eighty years of mining twenty million tons of phosphate were extracted from Ocean Island, and Nauru had provided almost three times that figure, giving a total of about eighty million tons from the two tiny Pacific islands.

"The imminent exhaustion of the deposits on the ravaged islands raised in an acute form the question of how to treat their owners. In the case of Nauru (administered by the Australians under a United Nations mandate) the government wanted to resettle the islanders on the mainland and abandon the island when mining ceased. The islanders rejected this idea in 1965 when, for the first time, they were given the right to apportion the royalties they received on each ton of phosphate as they wanted rather than as the Australian government decided on their behalf. After a long struggle Nauru was granted independence in 1968 and management of the phosphate operation was transferred to them in 1970. The islanders now live long a narrow coastal fringe, the only part of the island not devastated by mining. Their traditional way of life has gone and their only means of subsistence comes from royalties and profits from the phosphates. These have been sufficient to provide almost a parody of western style development. The islanders do not need to work and their material standard of living is high. There is one road on the island, which goes nowhere, but there is one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world. The population depends on imported western food and many have started to develop the health problems normally found in people who live in the industrialised world.

"The Nauru islanders faced enormous problems but the treatment of the dispossessed Banabans, who did not have the United Nations to protect their interests, was far worse. In 1911 the British government suggested that a trust fund should be set up for the Banabans, to be financed from the phosphate earnings. The British Phosphate Company proposed a munificent total annual payment of GBP 250 at a time when it was making a profit of GBP 20 million a year and paying dividends of forty to fifty per cent every year to its shareholders. Eventually the British government persuaded the company to pay royalties of six pence a ton, supposedly to be held as a fund for the Banabans when the phosphates ran out. The government's action was less philanthropic than it seemed. They incorporated Ocean Island into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony, even though there were no natural links between the two and allocated most of the phosphate royalties to pay for the administration of the colony that had previously run at a loss. The Banabans were not told that 85 per cent of their royalties were being spent in this way. Indeed they were not told how much they were earning or what was done with any of the money and only very small sums were handed over because the government thought that they were 'feckless'. Some of the money was used to buy Rambi island on their behalf (the proceeds going to the colonial administration of Fiji), although they were not consulted about the purchase. After 1946 they were left on Rambi, an island with a totally different climate from their home. Eventually the British offered the islanders GBP 500,000 as a final settlement for the effects of all the mining. The islanders rejected the offer and took the British government through the British courts in the 1970s in the longest civil case ever heard. They failed in the main part of the case because the court held that the 1900 agreement giving the company the right to mine the island in return for GBP 50 a year was a legally binding contract. The court did find that the British government had breached its obligation to care for the islanders but refused to make any award of compensation. Eventually the phosphate commissioners offered a sum that just covered the costs the islanders had incurred in bringing the protracted legal case. By 1980 Ocean Island had been destroyed by the mining and the deposits exhausted. The islanders had lost their home and had received pitifully small compensation for their loss. That was the real price of the cheap fertilizers for Australian and New Zealand agriculture and cheap food imports for Britain."

These few paragraphs comprise only about a tenth of the marvelous chapter in which Ponting describes how Europeans and their white colonies created what we now call the "Third World". I heartily recommend the book to anyone who hasn't read it. A new edition, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations is due to be published this month.

Bill Totten


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