Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year caused a ripple effect that upset global energy markets in ways that are difficult to predict their lasting impacts. But that’s not the only global market that was shaken by the war.

John Harpole, founder and president of Mercator Energy, explained at the Hart Energy America’s Natural Gas Conference in late September that the sudden shortage of natural gas has forced the closure of 70% of European fertilizer plants and put the world on track for a major food crisis.

“There were four mistakes made,” said Harpole as he spoke of the history that led Europe to dependency on Russian gas. He goes on to list them, noting that this dependency started long before Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

The first, he postulated, was an overreliance on renewables. Second, he said that Europe retired coal and nuclear plants too early. Third, Europe had an under-reliance on fossil fuels. And fourth, the continent relied on an unreliable supplier for the fossil fuels that they did use.

“In my opinion, this has been a trap that Putin has had in the making for 20 years,” Harpole said.

Germany’s Mistake

“Angela Merkel screwed up,” Harpole said of the former chancellor of Germany. “But I really lay a lot of the blame on Gerhard Schröder.”

Schröder was the chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005. According to Harpole, three months after he retired as Germany’s chancellor, he was on the board of Nord Stream 1. He had arranged for half of the financing for Nord Stream1 to come from German banks.

Hart Energy October 2022 - America Natural Gas Conference - Putin Trap - John Harpole Mercator Energy headshot“[Nord Stream 1] was just an outright brilliant move by Putin in his 20-year strategy to bypass the need to move gas through the Balkans, through Eastern Europe.”—John Harpole, Mercator Energy

Harpole said that, when this was announced, an Italian official responded with, “Once again, Germany and Russia are dividing up Europe.”

By this point, Harpole explained, 55% of the gas Germany consumed was coming from Russia. Germany was paying about $220 million a day to Russia for energy supply. And, despite all of this, from 1990-2005, Russia interrupted natural gas supplies to Europe 55 times.

“Why do you go and commit yourself to that?” Harpole posited. “It was an actual policy that Germans undertook to bring their adversary closer, and it was a huge mistake.”

According to Harpole, Schröder has been accused of aiding Russian interests in order to gain wealth. Prior to Nord Stream 1, Russia had to pay transit fees to transport its natural gas through Poland, Ukraine and the Balkan countries. If Ukraine didn’t like the fee negotiation, for example, they would just siphon gas.

“[Nord Stream 1] was just an outright brilliant move by Putin in his 20-year strategy to bypass the need to move gas through the Balkans, through Eastern Europe,” Harpole said.

The Shale Revolution

However, the U.S. shale revolution was the single biggest threat to Putin’s 20-year plan, Harpole said.

Russia had at one point, he said, engaged in a disinformation campaign, spending $95 million to discredit the shale revolution. This disinformation led to seven European countries to place a moratorium on fracking, one that is only recently being reconsidered in the U.K.

In 2009, Harpole explained, it was estimated that Russia would supply 70% of the EU’s energy needs, 55% primarily because of LNG. Combined with complicated ground-level mechanisms that made those dependent on Russian gas for utilities hesitant to do anything that would threaten the flow, this dependency fostered disunity within the EU.

“Germany walked right into this trap,” Harpole said. “And I would say it’s been very successful. Germany has provided less financial support than Estonia has to Ukraine. We’re seeing that division, and I think it’s going to be even heightened as the heating concern grows this winter.”

The shale revolution prevented similar problems from evolving in the U.S.

In 2002 and 2003, Harpole explained, it was predicted that by this time the U.S. would have to import 25%-40% of its natural gas. At the time, Russia, with the largest reserves in the world, was the most likely supplier.

“I know everybody jokes about the capital destruction that occurred through the shale revolution, but where would we be today?” Harpole questioned. “Where would Europe be today if the shale revolution had not happened?”

Current State of European Gas

Putin miscalculated the U.S. LNG response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shutdown of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Harpole said.

The U.S. began diverting LNG exports to Europe in earnest, quickly outpacing the amount being exported to Asia, Latin America and the rest of the world. As of June, he said, more U.S. LNG was coming into Europe than flowing gas from Russia. Although, half of Germany’s homes still rely on Russian gas.

But LNG imports are not impermeable.

There are 16 regasification facilities in Europe that are delivering more gas via LNG to Europe than Russia is through pipes, Harpole explained.

“I would be very, very concerned if I owned one of those regas facilities,” he cautioned. “I’d be very, very concerned about their safety over this next winter.”

Natural Gas and Global Food Supply

How does this all tie back to fertilizer and feeding the world?

Harpole explained that there are three fertilizers in the world: phosphates and potash, which are mined, and nitrogen fertilizers, which are made through a manmade process that turns natural gas into fertilizer.

Nitrogen fertilizer, he said, is used intensely in the worldwide growth of wheat, soybeans, corn and rice.

“Without that nitrogen fertilizer, we could perhaps support 3 billion people on this planet,” Harpole said. “So, 5 billion starve to death. You don’t exactly hear about that when California’s saying they want to eliminate methane. What happens to these people if this happens?”


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The fuel crisis in Europe has led to skyrocketing costs for natural gas and 70% of European fertilizer plants have closed, Harpole said. At least 40%-50% of the fertilizer produced in Europe was being shipped overseas, he continued. With fewer products to sell, the prices go up.

So, who is being left out, Harpole asks. The poorer countries: West Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East.

“There are people that are predicting that shortages of fertilizer will lead to less yield, which leads to anywhere from, I’ve heard, 20 million people starving to death over the next two years,” he said. “Any degree, any percentage of that is horrible. When you hear someone say that we need to live without methane, without natural gas, remind them that at least half of our planet relies on it.”

Harpole foresees deindustrialization in Europe due to a lack of natural gas that affects more than just the fertilizer industry. But this is the most critical one, he says.

“Today’s fertilizer shutdown means tomorrow’s famine,” he said. “I don’t think the far-left green that would say, ‘let them eat cake because they can’t get bread’ is going to be able to hide this story. And I think this will become the central argument in whether or not there’s actually an energy transition going on.”