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.
The viability of producing ammonia using renewable energy was one of the recurring themes of the recent Power to Ammonia conference in Rotterdam. Specifically, what cost reductions or market mechanisms would be necessary so that renewable ammonia - produced using electrolytic hydrogen in a Haber-Bosch plant - would be competitive with normal, "brown" ammonia, made from fossil fuels.
A number of major industry participants addressed this theme at the conference, including Yara and OCI Nitrogen, but it was the closing speech, from the International Energy Agency (IEA), that provided the key data to demonstrate that, because costs have already come down so far, renewable ammonia is cost-competitive in certain regions today.
The US Department of Energy's Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA-E) is funding projects with a view to commercializing low- and zero-carbon ammonia synthesis technologies.
Grigorii Soloveichik, ARPA-E Program Director, described the aims and challenges of his agency's initiative and introduced the technologies currently in development in his keynote presentation at the recent NH3 Fuel Conference, in September 2016.
If you want to know whether - or when - the US will become a nitrogen exporter, read what the fertilizer company CEOs say during the latest round of quarterly earnings calls.
These guys should have formed pretty solid opinions by now about how the capacity expansions will affect long-term supply and demand, and how they're going to gain/keep market share and competitive advantage. But it can be a challenge to infer what those opinions might be.
I've summarized the pertinent parts of the debate here, with quotes from Agrium, CF Industries, KBR, LSB Industries, OCI, Potash Corp, and Yara.
SUMMARY STATUS: Construction phase
"65% complete," and on schedule for start-up in 2017. Yara and BASF held a groundbreaking ceremony in July 2015, five months after the companies confirmed their investment decision and announced details of their joint venture relationship, the EPC contract award, and a 20-year feedstock supply contract.
OWNER: Yara Belle Plaine Inc (Yara International ASA)
PROJECT: Nitrogen fertilizer complex and brownfield ammonia-urea plant
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
Built in 1992, the Saskferco project was, until 2016, the newest world-scale, natural gas-based ammonia plant in North America. It was purchased by Yara in 2008, and expanded in 2008-9. Yara considered building a new brownfield ammonia-urea plant but, in 2013, cancelled those plans because costs grew too high and it had concerns about overcapacity.
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
US Nitrogen broke ground in February 2012, when it expected its new plant to start up in March 2014 - since then, the project has been fraught with problems. Permits were revised and reissued repeatedly, and the site has had major issues with compliance. The local community demonstrated tremendous resistance, launching permit appeals and a slew of lawsuits, some still ongoing. Construction and design issues led to major delays and lawsuits. The start-up process began in May 2015 but the ammonia plant didn't start up until June 2016. In August 2016, the site was temporarily shut down and was under federal and state investigation. The company announced that the plant was fully operational in January 2017 but even now it isn't clear the plant is producing much if any product.