Geologists have been talking about peak oil for quite a while now. Yet, there are still oil deposits that haven’t been tapped. And in some places fracking has been implemented to squeeze more out of the ground.
But, even if we use up all the oil in the world, it won’t be the end of life as we know it. There are substitute fuels and technologies waiting in the wings, waiting for that day when the powerful oil companies become redundant.
But there is another natural resource that is reaching its peak, and there are no substitutes for this resource, and most importantly, without it, all life on earth would perish.
If ever there was a potential extinction event it would probably be the depletion of phosphorus. Why is phosphorus so important? Every living thing (whether plant, animal, or human) needs phosphorus to produce healthy cells. So, the fact that the world’s reserves of phosphorus are dwindling fast is really bad news. Unlike oil, which is found in many areas of the globe, phosphorus is not as ubiquitous.
An estimated 85 percent of the globe’s phosphate reserve is controlled by Morocco’s royal family. Much of it is located in the Western Sahara. Jeremy Grantham, cofounder of the prominent Boston-based global investment firm Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., called this “the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.”
Oddly, peak phosphorus doesn’t get the attention that peak oil gets and yet it is far more important. In a recent essay in Nature, Grantham, who also runs an environmental foundation, put the case bluntly: Our phosphorus use “must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.”
The United States imports about 10 percent of our phosphate from Morocco. We also have some phosphorus mining operations in the U. S. The largest mining operation is in Florida.
Mining for phosphorus is environmentally devastating. It requires stripping large areas of land. It also creates massive amounts of phosphogypsum, an undesirable and toxic waste product. Phosphogypsum contains low levels of radiation and several heavy metals.
To date, these waste products have not been dealt with. There are huge piles of the stuff in mining regions. The EPA estimates that central Florida houses nearly 1 billion metric tons of toxic phosphogypsum and it keeps growing to the tune of 32 million metric tons each year.
As the toxic waste piles grow, the phosphorus reserves dwindle. It is estimated that within 25 years Florida’s phosphorus will be depleted.
Is this a hopeless situation? No, there are ways to extract phosphorus from waste products, but to date no one is recycling waste products. Currently, phosphorus is allowed to fallow in the fields or wash away into waterways and eventually into the ocean. Animal manure and human urine are excellent sources of phosphorus. But there isn’t any infrastructure in place to recycle these waste products.
There is no simple solution, but its crucial that something be done soon because our other option is to pay outragious prices to the King of Morroco, and eventually use up all the phosphorus.