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CF Industries Holdings, inc (NYSE:CF)
Q3 2021 Earnings Call
Nov 4, 2021, 10:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the First nine Months and Third Quarter 2021 CF Industries Holdings Earnings Conference Call. My name is Erica, and I will be your coordinator for today. [Operator Instructions]

I would now like to turn the presentation over to the host for today, Mr. Martin Jarosick with CF Investor Relations. Sir, please proceed.

Martin A. Jarosick -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Good morning, and thanks for joining the CF Industries earnings conference call. I'm Martin Jarosick, Vice President of Investor Relations. With me today are Tony Will, CEO; Chris Bohn, CFO; and Bert Frost, Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain. CF Industries reported its results for the first nine months and third quarter of 2021 yesterday afternoon. On this call, we'll review the CF Industries results in detail, discuss our outlook and then host a question-and-answer session. Statements made on this call and in the presentation on our website that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements. These statements are not guarantees of future performance and will involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions that are difficult to predict. Therefore, actual outcomes and results may differ materially from what is expressed or implied in any statements. More detailed information about factors that may affect our performance may be found in our filings with the SEC, which are available on our website. Also, you will find the reconciliations between GAAP and non-GAAP measures in the press release and presentation posted on our website.

Now let me introduce Tony Will, our President and CEO.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Martin, and good morning, everyone. Yesterday afternoon, we posted our financial results for the first nine months of 2021, in which we generated adjusted EBITDA of $1.5 billion. These results reflect the drastically improving industry fundamentals that we experienced over the course of the year. Nitrogen prices are at their highest levels in over a decade as strong demand and lower worldwide production have tightened the global supply demand balance considerably. At the same time, energy spreads between North America and high-cost regions have widened dramatically, supporting margin expansion for our cost advantage network. The CF team also continues to perform exceptionally well, navigating a couple of severe weather events in the U.S., our highest levels of turnaround and maintenance activity ever, and a challenging natural gas situation in the U.K. Most importantly, they did so safely.

Our recordable incident rate at the end of September was just 0.24 incidents per 200,000 labor hours, significantly better than industry averages. These factors have driven substantial cash generation over the last year. Our trailing 12-month net cash from operations was $1.7 billion and free cash flow was $1 billion. As we look ahead, we're excited about the opportunities to build on this performance. We have good visibility into the fourth quarter of 2021. We have priced virtually all of our product shipments through the end of the year while also hedging our natural gas requirements. While there is always some uncertainty about the volume of ammonia that will be applied in Q4, given the dependency on weather, we would expect full year 2021 adjusted EBITDA to land between $2.2 billion and $2.4 billion. Further out, we believe nitrogen industry conditions will remain positive for an extended period. As Bert will describe in a moment, we see very strong demand, constrained global supply and wide energy spreads between North America and Europe to persist for some time. These factors support our ability to continue to generate significant free cash and to deploy that capital to create shareholder value.

Our priorities remain the same: invest in growth where opportunities offer returns above our cost of capital and return excess capital to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases. We remain focused on disciplined investments and are excited about the two new projects supporting our clean energy growth platform. Once completed, these projects will enable us to produce over one million tons of blue or carbon-free ammonia. Chris will share more about our announcement yesterday in a moment. We are also pleased to have achieved investment-grade credit ratings, which recognizes and underscores all of the work we have done to remove fixed costs in the business, reduce debt and highlights the positive industry fundamentals for a North American producer. On the balance sheet, we are quickly closing in on our target of $3 billion of gross debt and expect to repay the remaining $500 million outstanding on our 2023 notes on or before their maturity. However, that still leaves a substantial amount of excess free cash flow we expect to generate. And as such, the Board has authorized a new $1.5 billion share repurchase program to facilitate the return of capital to shareholders.

With that, let me turn it over to Bert, who will discuss the global nitrogen outlook in more detail. Then Chris will follow to talk about our financial position and clean energy initiatives, before I return for some closing comments. Bert?

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Thanks, Tony. The last six to nine months have seen a dramatic tightening of the global nitrogen supply and demand balance. High crop prices and increased economic activity continue to drive demand. Meanwhile, lower global production and government actions have created a supply constrained global market. The impact of this can be seen on Slides 11 and 12, where both our spot cost curve and 2022 cost curve are much higher and steeper than in recent years. As you can see, the margin opportunities available to our network have expanded greatly due to a widened energy spread between North America and marginal production in Europe. We expect strong global fertilizer demand to last into at least 2023. As you can see on Slide 8, global stocks-to-use ratios for both grains and oilseeds are at their lowest levels in nearly a decade, supporting high crop prices. These prices will support farm profitability in North America, even with higher input prices, incentivizing farmers to plant acres and maximize yield.

Based on our order book, we expect the fall ammonia application season will be the largest since 2012, demonstrating farmer commitment to planting corn and applying fertilizer. We believe farmers around the world will make similar decisions, with import demand continuing to be led by India and Brazil. We believe global supply will remain constrained in the near term, with relief unlikely to appear anytime soon. We believe inventory in the channel is very low. Global production has been lower in 2021 due to severe weather in North America, higher maintenance worldwide, and ongoing European shutdowns and curtailments. Further, the Russian and Chinese governments are discouraging nitrogen fertilizer exports through the spring. These factors suggest the potential for strong fertilizer demand to last beyond 2023 even as some regions are unable to secure enough product in this supply constrained environment, resulting in lower yields. If this were to happen, demand would be deferred into future years as it would take more than two growing seasons to replenish global grain and oilseed stocks. As we prepare for the spring application season, we continue to receive substantial interest for any product we offer into the marketplace. We are building a solid order book for the first quarter of 2022 at the prices you see in the market today. Similar to what we did for the fourth quarter, we are adding natural gas hedges as we make first quarter product commitments in order to lock in margin and protect against significant energy price spikes. As a result, we believe we're in a strong position heading into 2022. In this dynamic market, we remain focused on leveraging our manufacturing, distribution and logistics capabilities to serve our customers and look forward to the opportunities before us.

With that, let me turn the call over to Chris.

Christopher D. Bohn -- Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Bert. For the first nine months of 2021, the company reported net earnings attributable to common stockholders of $212 million or $0.98 per diluted share. EBITDA was $984 million and adjusted EBITDA was approximately $1.5 billion. Net earnings and EBITDA reflect the recognition of a noncash impairment charges related to our U.K. operations. As discussed in the earnings release, our results for the first nine months and third quarter are preliminary pending the completion of the impairment analysis and finalization of the noncash impairment charges. We continue to monitor market conditions for the U.K. assets, which accounted for two of our gross margin in 2020. The Billingham complex is operating due to recently improved carbon dioxide contracts and industrial contracts that pass through natural gas costs. Operations at Ince remain halted. Free cash flow -- free cash generation remains strong. The trailing 12 months net cash provided by operating activities was approximately $1.7 billion and free cash flow was $1 billion. We believe we have a good opportunity in 2022 to build on these results based not only on our positive outlook, but also on increased production from our network.

In 2021, we completed a record level of maintenance activity that included turnarounds at seven of our 17 ammonia plants. We will return to a more normal level of turnaround activity in 2022. As a result, we expect to return to our typical high ammonia utilization rates, with gross ammonia production between 9.5 million and 10 million tons. We expect to sell everything we produce and achieve sales volume between 19 million and 20 million tons in 2022. As we sell these product volumes into a favorable market environment, we expect to continue to generate substantial free cash flow and create shareholder value. As Tony said, our Board authorized the new $1.5 billion share repurchase program, which becomes effective January 1, 2022. We continue to operate under our existing program, which has enabled us to acquire more than 11 million shares to be repurchased since 2019. This program expires at the end of the year.

At the same time, we'll continue to evaluate clean energy initiatives to meet the demand for ammonia's clean energy capabilities that we expect to emerge in the second half of the decade. This includes positioning our network for the production of blue and green ammonia to support the development of a market for low-carbon ammonia. Constructing carbon dioxide dehydration and compression units at Donaldsonville and Yard of the City are a necessary step to enable blue ammonia production through carbon capture and sequestration. These projects leverage our existing asset base and represented an efficient use of capital, with a return profile we expect to be above our cost of capital. Once sequestration is initiated, we'll be able to produce more than one million tons of blue ammonia annually while reducing our carbon emissions in a meaningful way. With our strong balance sheet, we also have the flexibility to evaluate additional opportunities in the years ahead. We continue to collaborate with global leaders where we can provide value, including jointly exploring with Mitsui the development of blue ammonia projects in the United States.

With that, Tony will provide some closing remarks before we open the call to Q&A.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Chris. Before we move on to your questions, I want to recognize our team here at CF for their strong work so far in 2021. Their commitment and dedication continue to be the foundation of our success. We are excited about what lies ahead for CF Industries. In fact, I think the company is better positioned today than we have ever been in our history. We are again an investment-grade credit issuer. We have the fewest shares outstanding ever. We expect the business to produce between $2.2 billion to $2.4 billion of adjusted EBITDA this year. And as we look forward to next year, we should have significantly more tons to sell at overall average higher prices than this year. So the business should generate all-time records for free cash flow per share. We see demand for low-carbon ammonia developing that should provide a long-term growth platform for the company. And with our investments in both green and blue ammonia production, we will be at the forefront of this exciting opportunity. Taken together, we have never been in a better position to create value for shareholders.

With that, operator, we will now open the call to your questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question comes from the line of Adam Samuelson from Goldman Sachs. Please go ahead sir.

Adam L. Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Yes, thank you. Good morning everyone. So Tony, Chris, I guess what I'm trying to reconcile and think about is the risk of demand destruction at current nitrogen and fertilizer prices broadly. I mean you talked about record demand for ammonia in the fall. Those prices were also booked several hundred dollars ago relative to where the spot market is. And so as you think about the order patterns into the first quarter, do you see any risks on farmers and their application rates? And obviously, nitrogen is less discretionary, but do you think that could have any impact on economic yield given where affordability is today?

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

When you look across the world and where we are starting with just supply, it's just not there. So this is more of a supply constrained market. The demand is definitely there. You're seeing India desperately trying to pull in tons and will continue to do so through -- I expect into their next fertilizer year, which begins in April. Brazil is ahead 10 percent year-on-year and probably will continue at that pace through importing urea at least through February for their safrina. And then we hit our spring in the northern hemisphere. With what's going on in Europe with gas prices and the level of shutdown, there's over 11 million tons of ammonia that is currently not being upgraded into ammonia nitrate, urea or CAN. And so tons need to flow, which were not planned in the supply and demand scenario to Europe. So we were in a supply limited market, and that's what's going to keep prices elevated.

The demand side of the equation is still very strong. And you're correct, what we sold for fall and we're applying today was sold at levels much lower than the current market, which is probably over $1,000 for ammonia. That being said, we're selling $1,000 ammonia for fall application on our incremental tons that are available, where, as I said in my prepared remarks, we're selling urea. And there is significant demand at that $730, $750 a short ton NOLA. It's even higher in the interior at over $800, which we've transacted at Port Neal. And you've seen in the publications the UAN reaction and the demand pulling. And I just looked at the analysis of where we are to date with order books and demand, and again, in a very good place at $550 UAN, calculating all that forward with current trend yield at 177 bushels per acre on the trend yield, that's not considering the I states, where you'll be 200 to 275 bushels.

Even with rented land at today's economics, you're cash positive. You're actually profitable at a pretty healthy level. If you own your land, even more so. There are ways to economize. And so if you're a farmer, you can look at different options. But that's not going to come at the expense of nitrogen and probably even at fertilizer. It's going to come at some other issues. So we're constructively, as I said, positive. I would say, very positive. And the customer advances continue to come in. And so we're working with our retail partners to make sure that, that supply is available and our retail partners are buying that and moving -- there's going to be a substantial amount of cash coming into our retail friends through year-end as farmers prepare for 2022.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

I would just add one thing, Adam, which is, as Bert said, demand is clearly there. If you look at our customer advances, our order book is strong, you can continue to sell forward. And it looks like farmer economics are positive. But given the supply shortfall, particularly now with both Russia and China withholding tons from the export marketplace, there is a real shortage of nitrogen. And price has got to basically arbitrate. Who's going to get the scarce tons that are out there? And so it's not so much that you're going to destroy demand. There's going to be a lot of unmet demand that's going to be pent up. And so we do think yield is going to be on a global basis off next year. Again, not because demand destruction, just because there's not enough tons available. And what that means is it's going to promote favorable supply demand dynamics in course grains as we get out into 2023 and probably beyond. So our view is that this is a very, very healthy dynamic that leads to a much longer period of positive fundamentals for our business.

Adam L. Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Ok, I appreciate all that color. i'll pass it on. Thank you

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Joel Jackson from BMO Capital Markets. Please go ahead.

Joel Jackson -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

Hey good morning everyone. Just thinking about your order book. And Bert, I don't want to misquote you. But I think you talked about before, when prices go up, you tend to book more product, more forward, to have kind of a longer-dated order book as far as go up, prices have really gone up. So would that be the case that really you book more product into Q1 than you normally have at this time -- you normally have it -- at the at this time?

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Yes. So we're pleased with our order book and like the position that we've placed ourselves in with the opportunities that the market has given us. And you're right, we have seen an accelerated market. We started the year at $350 per ton of urea, moved to $400 by April, moved to $500 by July, $600 in September and $700 in October. We have index contracts at every week price. And you can see in the publications, we started our fill program in July at $285 NOLA equivalent and then moved to $435 in September and then in October, $535. And so as I said, we're booked for Q4. And the majority of the $285 UAN was shipped in Q3, a little bit in Q4. And then those other prices will be bled in. As we look forward to Q1, we're starting to book those values today. And so you're looking at that $535, $550 for Q1 and $700 to $750 probably for urea. And we have yet to price Q2 ammonia. And once we book out Q1, then we'll look at Q2. But we've -- there's substantial demand for Q2, we would rather sell Q1 first.

Joel Jackson -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Steve Byrne from Bank of America. Please go ahead.

Steve Byrne -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Yes. Thank you. So you laid out the significant levels of disruption in supply that are going on. And most recently, you have Russia jumping into that theme. And I wanted to get your view on how significant is that? I understand that essentially all of the ammonium nitrate that Brazil imports comes from Russia. If that is the case, and where are they going to get it now? And are there regions of the world that you think are just flat out not going to be able to get nitrogen for the spring?

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Yes. So when you look at the Russia announcement, I would say in -- contextually, the Chinese announcement is much more significant, because of what has come out traditionally from China, the four million to five million tons of urea exports and also phosphates, that is going to have a -- because that's the incremental ton that is continually bid in. So in a world of 50 million tons of world traded urea, to take out up to 10 percent is going to be felt, on top of the demand, as I mentioned earlier, from Europe that needs to move. So you're going to see North African tons moving into Europe. And there's going to be a hole. Like Tony said, somebody is going to have to struggle or pay up.

The Russia announcement was a little bit of a surprise. The Russian demand for nitrogen fertilizers has been fairly consistent in that 5.5 million to 6.5 million tons demand per year. And they've exported the remainder. And so when you look at from year-on-year what Russia has consumed and what Russia has exported, on the margin, there's probably going to be a shortage of up to 0.5 million tons. So Brazil will be able to get their ammonium nitrate. And I believe the suppliers from Russia, EuroChem, Acron and the others will do that, as well as supply -- some of the portion that's needed in Europe. So it's going to come again on the margin. And every month, there'll be less tons available from an expected source, which further exacerbates this supply demand imbalance that we've been discussing.

Steve Byrne -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

And maybe a question for Chris. The decision to focus on Yazoo City as another carbon capture project in addition to Donaldsonville, do you have any more clarity about where the demand is going to be coming from for this, the blue ammonia? Are you increasingly confident that you can move those tons and generate a sufficient premium to offset your capital investment and generate a return?

Christopher D. Bohn -- Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Yes. Thanks, Steve. Yes, Yazoo City, as you know, has excess CO2. And that's why that was one of the sites also chosen to do the dehydration and compression unit there. As with Donaldsonville, we're in pretty extended discussions with different sequestration areas, whether it be EOR or people who are in the process of filing their Class VI permits related to both those areas. I think when you look at the economics, Steve, both at D'ville and Yazoo City, given what's been proposed from the 45Q tax incentive, it allows us to not only more than fund those particular capital expenditures, but also see a return above our cost of capital. And the reason for that is you know better than a lot of people do is because we're already capturing the CO2 off of our ammonia process today. So that equipment is already in place, and that's limited the amount of capex that we had need, and therefore, increases our return profile on that.

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

But I think, Steve, we are confident we'll be able to move that product into position. And even if that demand is international, make that effectively show up at D'ville for not very much cost and be able to export it as appropriate. It's not very far from Yazoo to D'ville. And we feel comfortable that there's a ready market for that -- for those tons. The other thing that makes Yazoo attractive, as Chris said, is a lot of excess CO2, it's very close to existing CO2 pipeline capacity with Denbury and there's a lot of options in the area. The geology there is really attractive. So Yazoo was an obvious add-on with the D'ville project.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

And I think when these projects do come online, because it will take two to three years, you will also see domestic demand for blue specifically at the levels that would be being produced at Yazoo.

Steve Byrne -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Jeff Zekauskas from JPMorgan.Please go ahead.

Jeffrey John Zekauskas -- JPMorgan Chase & Co -- Analyst

Hi, thanks very much. When do you expect to produce 1.25 million tons of blue ammonia? And how do you think about the price of blue ammonia? Is it relative to the price of agricultural ammonia? Or is it independent or it's relative to fuel prices? And so with those kinds of issues, how do you think you're out to returns on selling blue ammonia?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. So relative to kind of the value of blue ammonia, at a minimum, I would say, the value is equivalent to a regular conventional ton plus whatever carbon jurisdiction you're talking about. So in Europe, you're talking about EUR50 or above a ton. In the U.K., it's more like GBP50. Other regions are going to have different cost structures from a regulatory environment. And so at a minimum, I would say, you're able to get whatever prevailing value of carbon is on top of a regular sort of traded ton. And as Chris highlighted, if you think about the total variable cost required to produce a ton of blue ammonia, we probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to $10 a ton of electricity cost on plant site.

And then we're in pretty advanced discussions with a number of potential parties on the transport and injection, and believe that, that is a very manageable number from an overall cost standpoint. And so the all-in -- the variable cost that we incur is less than the value of the 45Q credit. And so the differential will go toward paying back the capital even before you put any premium on blue ammonia. So just on the value of the 45Q, we feel comfortable that we'll get returns above our cost of capital. And then to the extent you're able to realize margins and additional premium on blue, that just further adds to the attractiveness of this investment for us.

Jeffrey John Zekauskas -- JPMorgan Chase & Co -- Analyst

I see. Okay. And for my follow-up. Some farmers say that they really can't secure nitrogen product for the second quarter. And in your commentary, you said you're really trying to put together your first quarter order book. Is that a generally correct description, that farmers can't really get commitments into the second quarter just yet?

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Yes, I would say that's not necessarily true. And we don't deal directly with farmers. We deal with the kind of the retail wholesale trader group. First, retail. Then, some wholesalers, and a little bit of trading for exports. But we are selling -- our tons are being moved to the market. And so those are in the hands of the retail group. They have tons available to sell. We're producing record amounts of UAN. And you can see with some of the disruptions from the hurricane and weather problems. We did lose some tons, but we are moving our tons into the market.

We have a record number of UAN tows in service since I've been here. And as well, none of our railcars are in storage, which is the first time since I've been here in 13 years that all of our railcars are occupied. So product is moving to market. Product is available. Now that being said, CF is not pricing Q2 as of yet, and that's a pricing position. That's not a volume nor a commitment situation. So I believe if retailers wanted to take that out or a farmer wanted to get a quote or an offer, that should be available in the market. And there will be sufficient tons to meet spring demands, not only from CF, but from the broader industry group. Imports are up. Domestic production will recover. And yes, we will have a spring.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Jeff, I realized I didn't, sorry, answer your first part of the question about blue ammonia in terms of when is it going to be available. We've gone ahead and launched those projects now. We anticipate probably end of 2024 or early 2025. So by 2025, we expect basically a full year of operating on that basis.

Jeffrey John Zekauskas -- JPMorgan Chase & Co -- Analyst

Ok, great thank you so much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Vincent Andrews from Morgan Stanley.

Vincent Stephen Andrews -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Thank you and good morning everyone. Tony, I would love to get your thoughts on just sort of -- as we think about the next few years or three to five years or how ever you want to frame it, we're in a precarious situation now with obviously very tight grain stocks. And now we've had this spike in gas and coal prices and so forth. And we're having a lot of food inflation. And Bert laid out a very plausible scenario where we could have lower yields because of the inability of everybody to get nitrogen and so forth.

So what do you think the global response to this is going to be over time in terms of trying to manage the food supply and make sure that we kind of don't get into extreme situations like this into perpetuity? But at the same time, we need to balance our sort of climate goals and our green energy aspirations and so forth. So how does this needle get thread in your view?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Vince, it's a great question. And I think as you point out, there are a lot of competing priorities out there that have second order and tertiary kind of knock-on effects that not everyone understands well. So the push to reduce availability and affordability of fossil fuels because of a focus on climate change and move toward renewable, I think, is directly part of what's going on in Europe right now with extremely high natural gas costs. And that means that all of those plants that Bert talked about earlier curtailed or off-line. At the same time, you've got a number of governments around the world that are very focused on trying to limit rate of nitrogen fertilizer in particular because they're concerned about nutrient loss to the environment and runoff. And whether it's nitrous oxide produced on the field that -- it's pretty potent greenhouse gas or whether it's other kinds of runoff into waterways and so forth, there's a real push in some areas, Canada notably, and other places as well to reduce application rate. And if you do that, you're going to have a year one impact on yield.

So there are a number of, I would say, competing priorities out there. All of which, generally speaking, I would say, benefit North American producers because we do have ready access to low-cost gas. We're on the very low end of the supply curve. And as yields continue to struggle due to either lack of availability of nutrients or are these programs designed to reduce nutrient application, that's just going to keep grain prices higher for longer. I mean, ultimately, I think where this goes is governments are going to have to capitulate to the requirements of their people and provide affordable food, which means some of those priorities that they have heretofore held out as being these holy grails are going to probably have to take a back seat for a while just to make sure that we can feed the people of the world. But I think that you will see people backing off.

I mean, again, Germany has decommissioned their nukes, and they've brought on coal-fired power plants. That's not exactly what I would call a green initiative. You've seen the same thing in China as well. And the U.K. and Continental Europe are struggling with high gas costs. So I do think there is going to have to be a reassessment of what is required to -- for the planet to be able to eat and fuel itself.

Vincent Stephen Andrews -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Thanks very much i appreciate all this color.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of John Roberts from UBS. Please go ahead.

John Ezekiel E. Roberts -- UBS Investment Bank -- Analyst

Thank you. And back on the earlier question on the blue ammonia. Do you expect to sell it as fuel? Or do you expect to sell it as fertilizer and have some carbon credit broker get you the revenue for the sequestration values?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, John. So as Chris mentioned, and we've highlighted earlier, we do have this MOU in place with Mitsui. We're having very productive conversations with them. I think there is a real emphasis, particularly in Japan, but in some other regions as well to go into co-combustion of ammonia with coal to reduce the CO2 emissions out of those plants. And we think that, that is something that will develop into a pretty sizable market. Estimates can be as much as five million tons by the time you get to 2030 or possibly even before. And that's a huge increase in terms of the total amount of ammonia being consumed, particularly when you've got curtailments and outages in -- across broad swaths of the production universe here in Europe and the U.K. And so we're excited about the clean energy attributes that blue ammonia has. We think that that's probably where the majority of value sits at least in the near term.

While I think there is certainly the possibility to get some incremental value off of carbon sequestration in the soils from an agricultural application, given that most of that is going into the voluntary marketplace today where values trade at a pretty small discount to where structured carbon trades in the rest of the world, I think that's probably the last place just because of lower values that we would go. Now if the U.S. develops a more structured approach to the cost of carbon, and you can get a scientific valuation placed on carbon capture and sequestration in the soil, then that may change the math. But I think in the near term, what we're really looking at is more of a clean energy source. And we're working very closely with Mitsui to help develop that and bring that about. The other point though that I would say is, we believe these projects are attractive just based on the 45Q credit, that we ought to be able to generate a return on these projects without any embedded premium on blue. Now our expectation is there's going to be a sizable premium on blue. But to be clear, we're able to make the math work pretty easily just with the 45Q credit.

John Ezekiel E. Roberts -- UBS Investment Bank -- Analyst

And then how are you thinking about the pace of buyback under the new authorization? Is it going to be opportunistic? Or are you thinking something that's just going to be more structured over the two years?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I mean I think based on what we're looking at in terms of not only current year performance but our expectations for next year, there's going to be a lot of cash that needs to find a home. And so while we'll certainly buy more on dips or at lower prices, I think it needs to be that -- the volume that we're talking about is sizable enough that it probably needs to be a bit of a structured leg in there as well. So ultimately, probably a combination of approaches.

John Ezekiel E. Roberts -- UBS Investment Bank -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Chris Parkinson from Mizuho. Your line is open.

Christopher S. Parkinson -- Mizuho Securities USA LLC -- Analyst

Great, thank you. So just over the last five years, there's been a plethora of variables that's still driving a bit of volatility in the end unit UAN pricing versus urea. Just given current supply demand dynamics, trade flow adjustments over the last few years and the recent DOC case, can you just comment on your outlook for UAN pricing for '22, '23 as it pertains to end units versus urea? Thank you so much.

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

You're correct in terms of a lot of variables, a lot of volatility. In the last 1.5 years, we've traded as low as $115 a short ton for UAN and as high as $550 in NOLA. What drove that volatility? We believe we were pushed down low because of excessive imports of subsidized products and consigned products. And therefore, we took the case forward to the Department of Commerce and the ITC, and we're successful. We're pleased with that result. And we believe that, that information will come out with what the ruling will be and how that will be applied, step 1. And so the discount to urea took place for several years.

And that was an inappropriate response to a more -- a valued product, an expensive invested product and an asset base, we've invested several billion dollars to maintain and construct. So we're entering probably a normalized market now where UAN, again, is trading at a premium to urea for the reasons I just articulated, and it should. So through spring, most definitely, it will trade at a premium. We'll reset in July as we always do. We believe at a higher level. For the reasons we have articulated, we are in a different -- or a differentiated global market, driven by a lack of supply, with high levels of demand that is not going to correct itself probably for a couple more years. And so in that context, we see UAN trading at a advantaged position to urea as well as ammonia and ammonium nitrate. And that market, we don't see demand destruction. We just see differences of supply availability.

Christopher S. Parkinson -- Mizuho Securities USA LLC -- Analyst

That's great color. And just as a quick follow-up. Just given what's going on in China, what's your intermediate to long-term view of export trends, and what the ultimate price will be for those tons on an MMBtu basis? Thank you.

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Yes. So where you're looking at export trends, I would look at the Chinese economy holistically. And looking at what they're trying to do with energy and where they are, you've got the risk of entering winter, and ground may not be able to have heat in some of these big cities. Are you going to value the urea production? Or are you going to value the population and the ability to heat homes and to produce value-added products or a commodity product? I would bet on the latter than the former. And so -- or the former rather than the latter. There you go. And so what we're seeing in China is a result of several factors coming to play, whether that's pollution, economically driven decisions, higher -- polluting level product -- or production taken offline and then this restriction to have products available.

You've seen their production capacity -- full status capacity fall from 90 million tons at its peak to probably 75 million tons today. And then you take an operating rate that's ranged from 55 percent to 75 percent. In China, you only have available probably 53 million to 55 million tons of urea per year. Domestic consumption has rebounded and is over 50 million tons. So there is not that substantial amount of tonnage to export. And why export a value-destructive product? That's where we see the future of China. And other production is going to have to come on stream in other locales. So you have Nigeria coming up, Russia coming up. We need more. And so more construction will probably take place, but it's long dated. So you're not going to see this market correct for the arrival of new production, even though we need it.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

And I would also add, Chris, just based on what the forward curves look like, it's moved really Europe, and in particular, Eastern Europe into what I would call the marginal production ton in the world as opposed to out of China. But the factors that Bert was talking about means that China is not going to overwhelm the global marketplace with excess exports. And so that's going to maintain what we believe is going to be a relatively tight supply side equation. And just based on energy spread differentials that you can look forward, it's a much steeper supply curve than it's been recently. And that gives us a lot of opportunity here to generate cash in the U.S. So we're very constructive about all of these trends.

Christopher S. Parkinson -- Mizuho Securities USA LLC -- Analyst

Great color as always, thank you so much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of PJ Juvekar from Citi. Your line is open.

Prashant N. Juvekar -- Citigroup Inc. -- Analyst

Yes, hi. Good morning. There is all this resource nationalism going on about nitrogen that you talked about, but U.S. is still a net importer of urea. So how does this play out? Would growers switch from corn to soybeans at the margin or maybe the industrial demand has to back down to make room for agricultural demand? In your mind, how does this play out in the medium term?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

I mean I think that the U.S., based on crop prices and efficiency of growers and requirements on the industrial side, is able to bid away tons from other parts of the world that are less able to do so, particularly those economies that require government subsidies in which to bring tons in. And so our expectation is that there's going to be availability of product here in North America. And honestly, I don't see a scenario where industrial demand starts backing off based on ag demand. I see a situation where you end up with inflation in terms of the industrial goods as opposed to some reduction in economic output. But I think ultimately, as Bert talked about, you see some new projects on the drawing board, but not very many, and particularly not enough with respect to some of the closures and shutdowns or even curtailments that you see out there right now.

So ultimately, I think what's going to have to happen is you end up seeing more capacity added because the world just needs more than what's available. That's before you even get to clean energy applications for ammonia going forward. So I think the net of all of that suggests that there are new plants that the world is going to need to construct in order to be able to feed itself and utilize ammonia and these kind of new alternative applications versus what we've seen in the past.

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Yes. I think it's a false narrative, P.J., that those two are competing. And I think we're in the -- you have to go back to -- in the United States or in North America, we're in the resource-rich region of natural gas and energy products. We have the capability to construct and move with the infrastructure that's in place, whether that be rail, barge, truck, pipe. And we are set up to do that very efficiently. So what I can see over time is these other economies progress into lower carbon output -- or lower carbon consumption using natural gas or renewables. You're going to see the natural gas spreads continue to expand or stay expanded. Maybe not at its current level today of $20 per MMBtu, but maybe it's $10 rather than $6.

And that maintains North America as a low-cost, high-margin region in the world. And I think you'll see maybe some industrial production in other areas compromised, that would be Europe, and maybe some even in China over time as we move to a new market. On the corn to soybean competition, today, it's favoring corn, and it has been. And this is the time when it makes sense. And when it's very good for us to have that favorability because that's when today or in this period is when farmers are making that spring planting decision and allocating their resources accordingly, and therefore, booking fertilizer, which is positive for us. We're seeing very strong industrial demand in our book. And we balance both of those, we think, well as well as our industry. So I think it's a net positive.

Prashant N. Juvekar -- Citigroup Inc. -- Analyst

Great. That's good color. And just one quick one. Tony, when you talked about -- and thank you for giving the details on blue versus gray ammonia. It seems like blue ammonia will be more costly to make by $20 or $30 or something like that per ton. And so why would growers buy more expensive ammonia? Unless they're incented to buy, I mean, what's the mechanism for them to spend more?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. So remember, $20 to $30, that might be in the range or it might be a little high relative to our expectations. But that's not a crazy number. Remember, the 45Q tax credit, the way that it was originally constructed was going to be sort of $45-ish to $50. In the current regs, it's substantially above that, right? So although it's a little bit more expensive for us to make, if you net against it the 45Q tax credit, it's actually a discount relative to conventional ammonia from a producer side. But the reason why a grower would pay for it is, if they want to be able to make carbon labeling claims that go into consumer products companies, because they're going to care about that, or if you're trying to produce low-carbon ethanol that might be qualified for California's clean fuel standards, that might be a reason for it. Or even in the voluntary market, if you can get $5 to $10 a ton for sequestering carbon in the soil.

Being a grower, there were a couple of high-profile transactions that happened along those lines a couple of months ago. I think there's a lot of value there potentially for growers to try to differentiate what they're doing versus just a commodity, bushel or corn. And so based on kind of where some of those pockets of value are, we would expect there to be some margin opportunity for us or at least some incremental demand for that product. And again, to the extent that the U.S. actually adopts a more regulated and structured cost of carbon, then there's real economics available to the farmer if they can demonstrate the sequestration and sell those credits into a structured marketplace, so.

Christopher D. Bohn -- Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Yes. I was just going to add to that. I think one of the benefits of this is the incremental demand that Tony speaking of is the agriculture is already using ammonia. But as you start to see more of the industrial move in, that's where you'll start to see the bidding on ammonia go up and more constrained. So it's really about the demand addition that we think is going to occur here.

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Plus, you have to remember, if it's $50 more a ton, let's take it there than conventional, to a farmer, that's $10 an acre. That's two bushels. So the cost is insignificant to the farmer based on the benefits that Tony articulated. And we already have people wanting to buy Blue ammonia. So we think there's going to be a demand challenge which is very good for our business in the future years.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

And that's also, honestly, why Donaldsonville and Yazoo City are not the last dehydration compression projects that we're likely to build. We want to continue to evaluate other places with ready access to sequestration and continue to build out our network, because our belief is it's a project that pays for itself and also gives upside opportunity on access in the clean energy market in a way that is differential for us versus other market participants.

Prashant N. Juvekar -- Citigroup Inc. -- Analyst

Thank you. You guys give always good color. Thank you very much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Michael Piken from Cleveland Research. Your line is open.

Michael Leith Piken -- Cleveland Research Company -- Analyst

Yes hi thanks for the question. Just wanted to discuss in a little bit more detail on the status of your U.K. operations. I know they were down for a couple of days. And then you guys were -- reached an agreement with the government to restart it. When you talked about getting back to that kind of 19.5 million to 20 million ton, the implication, I assume there is that those plants are going to run full next year. So maybe you could just talk about the status of those plants. And are they going to be profitable? Or what type of returns we're looking out there given the higher gas costs?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, Michael, thanks. So the first thing that I want to just highlight is the relative importance of the U.K. in terms of the overall portfolio. As Chris mentioned, if you look back to our results in 2020, it represented 2% of our total gross margin. So from an aggregate profitability standpoint, it's on the small end of the scale. Now it does provide a little bit of a natural hedge for us. When global energy costs are low and relatively flat, then we earn a better return there. When energy costs are high, we earn a much better return in the U.S. on a larger production base. So it's a little bit of a kind of a natural hedge in that regard. But as you mentioned, because of a huge spike in gas cost in September, we took the plants off-line.

We worked, I would say, very constructively with the U.K. government to restart the facility at Billingham and be able to provide CO2 into the U.K. marketplace. That's pretty critical for the normal functioning of a number of different industries over there. And during that period of time, the U.K. government also is very helpful in us, working with us, and the CO2 offtake companies, the industrial gas companies from Billingham to restructure those contracts in a way that makes that plant viable. So we're really pleased with how that whole process developed. And the Billingham plant is up and operational, and we expect that to be viable in the long term. The Ince plant in the Northwest is not yet back online. We're evaluating a number of different options and scenarios.

They are including being able to secure a vessel to bring ammonia into the facility so we can at a minimum run the upgrade plants. Given, again, the high cost of natural gas through the winter, it doesn't look like ammonia production there is going to make a lot of sense. But being able to bring in ammonia will allow us to run the upgrades and make an appropriate return on those products. So we're kind of in a little bit of a wait-and-see mode in terms of what the longer range situation develops in the U.K. But I think for now, Billingham is up and operational. We expect that to happen. And again, we expect to be able to turn the back end of the fertilizer portion of the plant up and running. And Ince, hopefully, soon, within the next couple of weeks once we get the ammonia vessel squared away.

Michael Leith Piken -- Cleveland Research Company -- Analyst

Great. And then just understanding a little bit longer term. By the time some of these blue ammonia projects are up and running, I mean, is this going to increase your number of product tons? Is this going to come out of some of your other products? Like how should we be thinking about the cadence of your product tons sold over the next, call it, three to five years?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I mean we already run our ammonia plants at full operating rate, with the one exception of the U.K., which we just talked about, right? And so it's not necessarily a situation where there's new tons unless we engage in some debottlenecks or new capacity or other things like that. And so this is definitely a pulling tons away from the least profitable portion of -- or segment of our business and reallocating them to a higher-margin application. And so it's a margin upgrade as opposed to new production at this time.

Michael Leith Piken -- Cleveland Research Company -- Analyst

Great thanks.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Andrew Wong from RBC Capital Markets. Please go ahead.

Andrew D. Wong -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Hey, thanks for taking my question. Just going back on blue green ammonia here. Can you talk about how the blue green ammonia market could impact the dynamics around the gray ammonia market in the future? I mean, we have projects like D'ville and Yazoo, turning some of the volumes from gray to blue. And as those tons are sold into clean ammonia applications like maybe with Mitsui, does that effectively mean a loss of supply for the gray ammonia market? And then on the demand side, like the molecules are the same, could there be a scenario where demand and supply maybe aren't matched up properly? So you have some applications that maybe need blue green ammonia. But if there isn't enough, you use a little bit of gray. Just in general, does the emergence of a blue green ammonia market mean potentially a tighter gray market in the future? Thanks.

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I mean I certainly think that's where we see things headed. I also think that's where -- not wanting to interpret things for them, but I think that that's consistent also with where Air Products and others see things headed. Hence, the announcement, both of the Neon project in Saudi Arabia, but also the recent announcement they had in Louisiana around a Blue project. And I think a number of the market participants see this coming. I think ultimately, what that's going to mean is you've got more demand than what current supply is in ammonia. It's going to bid in new production, new capacity, which the world is going to need. And that's pretty attractive relative to valuing existing assets.

So we think, overall, this is a terrific set of factors that create a revaluation or rethinking about what the value of our asset base is, being that we're the largest ammonia producer in the world. And I think the situation is not unlike what we've got today, right, which is -- today, as Bert mentioned, it's more of a supply side constraint given a bunch of curtailments and shutdowns and other disruptions. But in the future, even if those plants are off and running and you see demand continue to exceed where supply is capable of reaching, you see price escalation like we're experiencing right now.

Andrew D. Wong -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, thank you very much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Adrien Tamagno from Berenberg. Your line is open.

Adrien Tamagno -- Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. KG -- Analyst

Hello, good morning. As a follow-up from the previous question. So from a CF Industries perspective, the combination of the world being short of ammonia, as you described, and the current technical difficulty to make significant volumes in a low-carbon way, would that makes you thinking about going for greenfield ammonia at some point in time or it's out of question for you?

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Well, I mean, we constantly are evaluating ways to add capacity where appropriate. I think our biggest focus area and the thing that we use as a lens to make all of those decisions is ultimately cash flow per share. And if we can find an opportunity that allows us to expand capacity, whether that's a debottleneck, inorganic acquisition or an organic kind of growth, where we believe that that's going to grow our free cash per share, then we'll take a serious run at it. I think in these kind of context, we would be much more likely to think about partnership structures or other things like that if we were going to move forward on any of those things. But I do think it's a positive sign.

When others out there are making announcements about adding capacity, I do believe we're the best operators of ammonia plants in the world. And so if there's opportunities for new capacity additions, we ought to be thinking about that along with other people. And I do think the world is going to need it. It's a question of when, and in the interim, are you better off buying existing assets or debottlenecking what you already have versus building new? But I think those are appropriate questions that anyone in the industry today is kind of mulling over and really thinking about.

Adrien Tamagno -- Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. KG -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time we have for questions today. I would like to turn the call back to Martin Jarosick for closing remarks.

Martin A. Jarosick -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Thanks, everyone, for joining us, and we look forward to speaking with you throughout the quarter.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 64 minutes

Call participants:

Martin A. Jarosick -- Vice President of Investor Relations

W. Anthony Will -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Bert A. Frost -- Senior Vice President of Sales, Market Development and Supply Chain

Christopher D. Bohn -- Senior Vice President & Chief Financial Officer

Adam L. Samuelson -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Joel Jackson -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

Steve Byrne -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Jeffrey John Zekauskas -- JPMorgan Chase & Co -- Analyst

Vincent Stephen Andrews -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

John Ezekiel E. Roberts -- UBS Investment Bank -- Analyst

Christopher S. Parkinson -- Mizuho Securities USA LLC -- Analyst

Prashant N. Juvekar -- Citigroup Inc. -- Analyst

Michael Leith Piken -- Cleveland Research Company -- Analyst

Andrew D. Wong -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Adrien Tamagno -- Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. KG -- Analyst

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