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Viewpoint: Farming depends on offshore oil

By Terry Wanzek JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Americans used to behave as though offshore drilling was a painful dental procedure they wanted to avoid it at all costs. In Washington, lawmakers were so eager to ban it that they banned it twice. First, Congre...

By Terry Wanzek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Americans used to behave as though offshore drilling was a painful dental procedure they wanted to avoid it at all costs.

In Washington, lawmakers were so eager to ban it that they banned it twice. First, Congress outlawed most of it in 1981. Then, the first President Bush outlawed it again in 1990.

But the soaring price of energy now is driving everyone to -- ahem -- extraction.

Last week, our current president lifted the executive ban that his father had put in place. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently announced that he supports offshore oil and gas exploration as well, which is a change of heart for him. Polls show that most Americans now support the repeal of federal bans, too.

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These shifting views are the result of rising gas prices and environmentally safer technologies. The cost of fuel never has been higher, and the risk of offshore exploration never has been lower.

Farmers have a stake in this debate, and not just because they need to fill up their gas-guzzling combines and tractors. They're also enormous consumers of natural gas for energy and the production of fertilizer.

Like so much else, the price of fertilizer has shot up in recent months for a number of reasons, including increased global demand. Keeping the cost reasonable is in the interests of everybody from the farmers who spread fertilizer on their fields to increase yields to the consumers who purchase what they grow.

Fuel, natural gas and food are strategic commodities, and so is fertilizer.

Earlier this month, the G8, the world's eight wealthiest countries, met in Japan. "We are deeply concerned that the steep rise in global food prices coupled with availability problems in a number of developing countries is threatening global food security," they said in a joint statement. They called for aid to famished people as well as for increased production.

It will be difficult to increase food production if the affordability and accessibility of fertilizer becomes a challenge. Farmers will have to spend more of their resources just to maintain their current production levels. And that's not good enough. We need to break food production records every year just to keep pace with the demands of a growing global population.

Without fertilizer, food production around the world would drop by at least 40 percent and possibly more. The terrible result would be rampant malnourishment and mass starvation -- a horrific dead zone -- if you catch my drift.

Pulling natural gas from the bottom of the sea won't work as a panacea, but it will begin to address a problem of added demand that's having a big impact on burgeoning food prices.

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Although estimates vary, federal geologists think that the U.S. continental shelf may hold 10 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in areas where exploration currently is banned. When these resources come on the market, they'll do nothing but help the cost of energy, fertilizer and food.

More research is needed as well. Dozens of projects are now under way to help us maximize the advantages of fertilizer. Different types of crops and soil have different needs. Farmers must know how much fertilizer to apply, when to put it down and precisely what kind of mix to use. On our farm, we do a complete scientific lab analysis of our soils every year and determine what nutrients are needed for a balanced exact fertilizer application program for the intended crop to be grown. At the same time, seed companies are working to develop crops that make the most efficient use of nitrogen.

Scientists always have known that fertilizer's main benefit involves yield. But that may not be the only benefit. The fertilizer industry recently helped endow a professorship at Oklahoma State University.

"It is our hope that this professorship will encourage the expansion of an untapped and important area in academic research," said Harriet Wegmeyer of the Nutrients for Life Foundation. "If, as predicted, a correlation between fertilizer and healthier foods is established, imagine the impact. An increasingly health-conscious public will finally regard fertilizers for what they truly are .?.?. nutritious -- for both plants and, in turn, people."

To have enough fertilizer, we need enough natural gas. To have enough natural gas, we need offshore production.

Maybe we really do need to think about this issue in terms of dentistry. As with a bad toothache that won't go away, we should let the drilling start as soon as possible.

Wanzek, a Republican, grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota. He also serves as a North Dakota senator and is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology ( www.truthabouttrade.org .

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