Over the last few years, world-scale ammonia plants have been built, restarted, and relocated across the US. The last of these mega-projects began operations at Freeport in Texas last month. No more new ammonia plants are currently under construction in the US, and the received industry wisdom is that no more will begin construction.
However, project developers and ammonia start-ups did not get this memo. With low natural gas prices persisting, they have not stopped announcing plans to build new plants. The difference is that the next tranche of new ammonia plants breaking ground will not be world-scale but regional-scale, with production capacities of perhaps only one tenth the industry standard. Despite using fossil feedstocks, these plants will set new efficiency and emissions standards for small-scale ammonia plants, and demonstrate novel business models that will profoundly alter the future industry landscape for sustainable ammonia technologies.
The newest ammonia plant on the planet has opened in Freeport, Texas.
A joint venture between Yara and BASF, this world-scale ammonia plant uses no fossil fuel feedstock. Instead, it will produce 750,000 metric tons of ammonia per year using hydrogen and nitrogen delivered directly by pipeline. The plant's hydrogen contract is structured so that the primary supply is byproduct hydrogen, rather than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, and therefore the Freeport plant can claim that its ammonia has a significantly reduced carbon footprint.
This new ammonia plant demonstrates three truths. First, low-carbon merchant ammonia is available for purchase in industrial quantities today: this is not just technically feasible but also economically competitive. Second, carbon intensity is measured in shades of grey, not black and white. Ammonia is not necessarily carbon-free or carbon-full, but it has a carbon intensity that can quantified and, in a carbon-constrained economy, less carbon content equates to higher premium pricing. Third, the ammonia industry must improve its carbon footprinting before it can hope to be rewarded for producing green ammonia.
In December 2017, IFFCO Canada relaunched with new development partners, new design, and a new name: ProjetBécancour.ag Limited Partnership. The project, first announced in 2012, was originally a $1.2 billion urea plant, but is now being reconfigured as a methanol-urea plant.
The list of investment drivers for building new ammonia plants in the US over the last few years was short, beginning and ending with cheap natural gas. Markets change, however, and the investment drivers for the next generation of new ammonia plants might include low cost electrolyzers, low cost renewable power, carbon taxes, and global demand for ammonia as a carbon-free energy vector.
For this to make sense, however, ammonia needs to be produced without fossil fuel inputs. This is perfectly possible using Haber-Bosch technology with electrolyzers, but today's wind and solar power plants exist on a smaller scale than could support a standard (very big) Haber-Bosch plant. So, to produce renewable ammonia, small-scale ammonia production is essential.
This time series chart shows the capital intensity of today’s ammonia plants. Together, the data illustrate competitive advantages of alternative investment strategies, and demonstrate a shift away from the prior trend toward (and received wisdom of) monolithic mega-plants that rely on a natural gas feedstock.
The developers behind the proposed world-scale ammonia plant in Topolobampo, Mexico, are quietly moving forward again.
This illustrates how hard it can be to challenge unwanted industrial development.
This also illustrates the local impact of a national statistic. The US became "a net exporter of natural gas on an annual basis in 2017 for the first time since 1957," in part due to new pipelines to Mexico, which benefitted from industrial anchor customers creating a future market for that gas.
Thus, Topolobampo ammonia: vertical integration of the value chain.
The urea brownfield in Beulah, North Dakota, has been under construction since mid-2014. It didn't start-up in early 2017, as originally scheduled, but it is now, finally, more-or-less finished, and its owners have announced a new schedule for the start of production.
The company behind the Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP) filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2017, ending any hope that it would build its proposed million-ton-per-year "clean coal" urea plant.
This means that every one of the "clean coal" ammonia synthesis projects I've been tracking since 2012 has failed: in California, in Mississippi, and now in Texas. That's three strikes; if hydrogen sources were like baseball, coal would be out.
These projects all shared jaw-dropping cost escalations and multi-year delays that forced financing partners to withdraw.
The 500,000 ton per year greenfield ammonia plant under development in Washington state is making slow but steady progress. Today, it completes the public consultation period for its "scoping" exercise, which will determine the extent of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS is a more legally-robust route to the end-goal of receiving air and water permits.
The EPC firm working on OCI's world-scale nitrogen complex in Iowa was supposed to hand over the keys to the plant two years ago. While IFCo is now operating and managing the site, the EPC firm is still there, finishing up, and the formal hand-over ("project acceptance") hasn't happened ... despite the fact that OCI held a ribbon-cutting ceremony back in April.
Blame the opossum, who knocked out the power for a while.
In August 2017, Cronus Chemicals announced that its proposed greenfield in Tuscola, IL, is still moving forward, with a shiny new agreement with an EPC firm, as well as a revised project scope (more ammonia, less urea), and a more realistic schedule.
Unfortunately, while this was widely reported as being a major step forward, there's a world of difference between an agreement with an EPC firm and an actual EPC agreement.
It must have been a long summer for Midwest Fertilizer Company, which has been attempting to wrangle ThyssenKrupp into a new EPC contract while mounting a challenge to the IRS. Both efforts are essential if the project is to have any chance of moving forward. Nonetheless, Midwest recently announced a revised budget along with its new groundbreaking and start-up schedule.
Construction is almost complete on Fortigen's new ammonia plant in Nebraska, and "the pre-commissioning stage is now underway,” according to local press. Unfortunately, there was a significant setback on the site at the end of May, when the ammonia storage tank was damaged, which will probably delay full operations by at least a month.
LSB Industries announced last night that it has decided to "terminate the formal sale process portion of its strategic review," which it launched in November 2016. This means it is no longer seeking a buyer for the company itself, although its assets could still be available.
Yara released its earnings report for the second quarter yesterday, featuring a long tale of woe for nitrogen margins based around the argument that nitrogen commodity prices are depressed due to oversupply.
Still, this won't stop Yara from opening its new world-scale ammonia plant later this year, which remains on schedule at Freeport in Texas.
In May 2016, Phibro announced that it was going to invest $450 million to open a half million ton per year ammonia plant in Indiana. There's been precious little news about the project since then, but a lack of news doesn't mean that nothing is happening.
In 2012, when US Nitrogen broke ground on its new plant in Tennessee, the resurgence of the North American nitrogen industry was just beginning. Ammonia sold at high prices but, thanks to the shale gas revolution, the natural gas feedstock was cheap. As a result, profit margins were high and forecasts were rosy.
Now, it's different. Ammonia and its derivatives don't command high prices, which makes it a poor time to begin operating an expensive new plant - but those same low prices might make this a good time to begin construction.
Recent news regarding both completed and future projects illustrate the sometimes painful relationship between product pricing in a cyclical industry and the timing of investment decisions.
The simple economic argument for investing in a new ammonia plant in the US today is that ammonia prices, being cyclical, will recover from their present short-term low, but that natural gas prices, being fundamentally altered by the shale gas revolution, will stay low in the long-term.
"IFC was ready to make it official. The company was at 100 percent operation. It was time for the ribbon cutting."
Well, yes and no.
Yes, Iowa Fertilizer Company held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its greenfield at Wever. No, Wever is hardly 100% complete: the ammonia plant is operational, but the downstream plants may be months away.
Agrium announced yesterday that it has "successfully commissioned" its new urea plant at Borger, TX, "with its first run of urea production." The plant had been mechanically complete at the end of 2016.
The Lithuanian investors behind a proposed ammonia plant in Louisiana have put the project "on hold indefinitely," according to local economic development officials quoted in the local press this week.
Dyno Nobel's new plant at Waggaman, LA, is producing ammonia above its daily rated capacity. Conversely, total production in 2017 is expected to be closer to 80% of annual capacity, because it is likely to be taken offstream regularly this year while it ramps up.
This article discusses the early performance of the Waggaman ammonia plant, and the cost overruns it saw during construction.
EuroChem's CEO confirmed in the Russian press yesterday that the company still intends to build its massive greenfield nitrogen plant in Louisiana. This article introduces some of the changing market conditions that will impact, for better or for worse, EuroChem's final investment decision.
2016 was a transformative year for the North American ammonia industry but, in 2017, the bigger impact will be on the urea industry.
Here's an update on four urea expansions expected on-stream this year and next, which will add almost two million tons of new urea capacity. In the process, they'll reduce the amount of ammonia that's available for sale by more than one million tons.
And, as a bonus, I have news on an embattled "clean coal" project that, in what might be a last gasp attempt at a viable business model, could potentially add another 1.5 million tons of urea in Texas.