Natural gas, fracking, and your green lawn

When you buy fertilizer, you’ll notice three numbers on the label, for instance, 12, 6, 6. These indicate the percentage of three key nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. For green grass, nitrogen is the most important ingredient.

Although our atmosphere is almost 80 percent nitrogen, plants can’t use nitrogen as a nutrient unless it is converted to a substance like ammonia—a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen.

Early in the 20th century, German scientist Fritz Haber developed a procedure to make that conversion. And during World War I, Haber’s process was scaled up by Carl Bosch of the company BASF, and was used by Germany to create ammonia for explosives.

Following the war, the Haber-Bosch process was widely adopted to create the nitrogen for fertilizer. This helped launch the Green Revolution, and its unprecedented gains in agricultural output.

So what does nitrogen fertilizer have to do with fracking? The ammonia used to make fertilizer or explosives is composed of nitrogen and hydrogen. The source of hydrogen in the Haber-Bosch process is natural gas. Methane from natural gas and atmospheric nitrogen are converted to ammonia through a catalytic process.

Extracting natural gas through fracking has been the source of unease around the country. Many people are concerned about the environmental impacts. Scientists are conducting research that might shed some light on the potential for damage. We don’t have all the answers yet.

But this much is clear. If you don’t like the idea of fracking, then you should be willing to curtail your use of natural gas products. One easy way to do that: stop fertilizing your lawn.


Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on July 17, 2012. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

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