News

Posts About Diesel Exhaust Fluid Shortages Are Misleading

You may have seen copied and pasted Facebook posts raising alarms about Union Pacific, Pilot Flying J, and shortages of DEF. Here are the facts.

Published Jun 20, 2022

A tube going into a tank nozzle for AdBlue, with a tank cap for diesel on the right, on a Skoda Kodiak pictured in Goettingen, Germany, 31 July 2017. Photo: Swen Pförtner/dpa (Photo by Swen Pförtner/picture alliance via Getty Images) (Swen Pförtner/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
Image Via Swen Pförtner/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

In May 2022, we began receiving inquiries about a Facebook post that had been copied and pasted by a seemingly countless number of users, claiming that the Union Pacific railroad company was placing an "embargo" on Pilot Flying J. Pilot Flying J operates travel centers (better known as truck stops) around the U.S. The purported embargo by Union Pacific would supposedly cause a shortage of an important product called diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), as Pilot Flying J utilizes the railroad company's shipping services to deliver DEF to truckers. The post said the embargo would lead to fewer trucks on the road, resulting in nationwide food shortages. All of this was misleading.

For years, Facebook users have been copying and pasting posts that make bold and oftentimes spooky claims. We call these copypasta. They're similar to the email chains of old that would also promote serious-sounding yet questionable information that, if forwarded to all of one's friends, might make the sender feel a bit like a hero. As common as they are, few of these kinds of posts have been as misleading and complex as the one we're about to dive into.

Quick Summary

If you're short on time, here's what you should know. The primary claim made in the viral Facebook post was that Union Pacific was placing an embargo on Pilot Flying J. That supposed embargo would drastically reduce the number of rail cars that Pilot Flying J could use to ship diesel exhaust fluid for its truck stops. DEF is needed for a lot of diesel trucks to operate. A shortage of DEF for the trucking industry would theoretically result in fewer trucks on the road, meaning there might be shortages of food and other goods in the future, the post claimed.

However, both Union Pacific and Pilot Flying J provided information to us that showed the rumors were misleading. We have included the companies' statements at the end of this article.

A Complete Breakdown of the Post

In an effort to provide the truth behind each claim in the post, we have broken it down into several parts below. All of the sources we consulted are displayed at the end of the article.

The Facebook post began as follows:

Pay attention, please. Do you know what DEF fluid is? It's diesel exhaust fluid. Every diesel truck that has been made since 2010 is required to use it. It's a product made of 67% urea fertilizer and 33% distilled water. Every diesel truck you see driving down the road today has to have this product to drive. The engines won't start without it. There are regulators inside the engine that mix DEF with the diesel to reduce diesel emissions. That's the purpose of DEF.

In our research, we found most of this to be true. (Note, however, that DEF consists of 32.5% urea and 67.5% deionized water, not the other way around.) The simplest way to describe the purpose of diesel exhaust fluid is that it helps to convert engine exhaust into clean, harmless, and natural elements. DEF is required for today's large diesel trucks. (DEF isn't mixed with diesel fuel. According to what we found, DEF is injected into the exhaust.)

According to Cummins, a company that manufactures engines and provides a number of other auto solutions, “almost all diesel-powered passenger cars and trucks built since 2010 are equipped with selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and require diesel exhaust fluid (DEF).”

The ingredients and percentages mentioned in the post were correct, as was the fact that modern diesel engines need DEF to start up.

The post continued:

Right now, Russia is the largest exporter of urea by a wide margin. Qatar is second. Egypt and China are tied for 3rd. Both Russia and China have decided to no longer export urea. On top of that, India is the largest manufacturer of urea in the world even though they consume most of what they make. What little they would export..........they no longer do. They are now stopping the exportation of any and all urea minus a deal they just cut with Sri Lanka.

As of 2019 (the most recent information available), this data about the countries’ rankings for exports of urea fertilizer was correct. It’s unclear if Egypt and China were “tied” as the Facebook post mentioned, but their numbers from 2019 were quite similar.

Russia did “temporarily” halt urea exports in early 2022. It’s also true that, in 2021, China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) “ordered major Chinese fertilizer companies to stop exporting [urea] ‘to ensure the supply of the domestic chemical fertilizer market.’”

Additionally, the urea production facts about India and Sri Lanka were true.

The next part of the post made a false claim about urea production in the U.S.:

What does this mean for you and me? Well, first, the United States imports most of its urea fertilizer. We are the third largest importer in the entire world. We depend on other countries to eat, drive, and ship our products.

This was misleading. According to numbers from 2019 that were published by the data platform Knoema (the most recent information available), the U.S. produced more urea that year than it imported. However, yes, the U.S. was the third on the list of countries for imported quantities of urea. (In December 2021, The New York Times published an article describing more details about the worldwide impact of the lack of availability of urea fertilizer.)

The next paragraph in the Facebook post described the aforementioned primary claim about Union Pacific and Pilot Flying J:

Secondly... Flying J is the largest service provider for truckers around the United States. I'm sure you've seen their massive gas stations when traveling around the country. Flying J gets 70% of their DEF fluid from shipments via Union Pacific railroad. UP has single user access to the fertilizer plants that urea/DEF fluid comes from. No other rail provider has access to these distribution points. This means Flying J can't just go around Union Pacific. Union Pacific is in charge....for a reason I'm gonna mention in a few paragraphs.

Pilot Flying J truly did appear to be “the largest travel center operator in North America.”

As for the other points made in this part of the Facebook post, we'll turn to an April 2022 hearing conducted by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). This hearing played a key role in the creation of the misleading post. The board’s website described its purpose as “an independent federal agency that is charged with the economic regulation of various modes of surface transportation, primarily freight rail.”

The hearing was titled as, “STB Hearing on Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service.” Pilot Flying J CEO Shameek Konar spoke to the board. He said that about 70 percent of Pilot Flying J locations receive DEF from shipments on the Union Pacific railroad. Konar also provided answers that reflected some of the same information seen in the post.

The post went on ("UP" refers to Union Pacific):

Flying J provides 30% of all DEF consumed in the United States. UP has told Flying J to reduce their shipments by a whopping 50%. And if they do not comply then they will be completely embargoed. That would in effect bankrupt FJ. This means that 15% of all DEF consumed by truckers in the US is no longer available at the largest travel service center for the entire trucking industry.

During the April 2022 hearing with the STB, Konar made statements that echoed all of these statistics. However, in June 2022, after we contacted both Union Pacific and Pilot Company, the owner of Flying J brand, both companies put to rest the rumor that any such reduction in DEF shipments had occurred.

Also, we did not find that Konar ever said the aforementioned embargo from Union Pacific would “bankrupt” Pilot Flying J, but he did mention that “the current situation is untenable” for the company. He also said, apparently partly as a joke, that he would be “fired” if the embargo went into effect.

At this point, the Facebook post veered into conspiracy theory territory:

Rome rotted from the inside out. It was easily invaded because it was occupied with internal problems. It appears we have discovered the trigger. DEF fluid. If this holds up, DEF shortages will be the catalyst that causes food shortages in the coming months. Not only is there a shortage of fertilizer to grow crops in drought-stricken states (see Kansas' drop in wheat production for 2022)....but....now it looks like, unless the federal government intervenes via the Defense Production Act, ...which I am no longer confident they will....there's gonna be an absolute massive shortage of trucking in the coming months.

Aside from the claim about Rome, the rest of this part of the Facebook post appeared to consist of unsupported predictions about the future. (The mention of Kansas led us to an article from KCUR.org that cited a farmer who said the state's wheat production was down due to drought and the high cost of fertilizer and fuel.)

The post was almost done at this point (we hoped):

There simply isn't going to be DEF fluid sufficient to keep the engines running and moving. Home Depot is now limiting the amount of DEF you can buy in their stores.

The first part of this claim was false, as Union Pacific and Pilot Flying J confirmed to us that no embargo ever went into effect, meaning there was no shortage of DEF being shipped by Union Pacific to Pilot Flying J travel centers.

As for the claim about Home Depot, we contacted the company’s media inquiries team to find out if stores really were "limiting the amount of DEF" that could be purchased. By email, a spokesperson for Home Depot told us that they found an issue that caused purchases to be limited to only six units of DEF at a time for online orders. However, they said the error was in the process of being fixed and that there was never a limit on how many quantities could be bought in-store.

The post continued with its warnings:

I would think long and hard about the decisions you are making right now. Where you live. What you spend money on. How you prepare. This is so real that the CEO of Flying J, Shameek Konar was summoned to a Surface Transportation Board hearing to give them all this info.

From what I'm reading....BlackRock is the majority shareholder of Union Pacific railroad. How is that important? America's biggest fertilizer producer is CF Industries. Their largest shareholder is BlackRock. BlackRock controls the fertilizer industry in the U.S. Union Pacific has exclusive rights to distribution points of fertilizer. Urea is fertilizer. Flying J needs urea/DEF. BlackRock is controlling everything.

Here are some facts. As of May 9, 2022, the majority shareholder of Union Pacific was The Vanguard Group, Inc. with 8.5 percent of the shares. BlackRock, Inc. was described as “the second largest shareholder owning 7.3 percent of common stock.”

According to CompaniesMarketCap.com, CF Industries was the second largest fertilizer company in the U.S. Further, BlackRock was not CF Industries' largest shareholder.

Konar did mention that Union Pacific had some exclusive rights, but we'll move on instead of getting into the weeds of that claim:

The chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute is Tom Donilon, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor. Tom Donilon’s brother, Mike Donilon is a Senior Advisor to Joe Biden. Tom Donilon’s wife, Catherine Russell, is the White House personnel director. Tom Donilon’s daughter, Sarah Donilon, who graduated college in 2019, now works on the White House National Security Council.

All of these statements in the post about the administrations of former U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. President Joe Biden were true. However, they were also completely irrelevant. As we already established, we received word from both Union Pacific and Pilot Company that effectively debunked the primary concern mentioned in the copypasta post, namely a supposed shortage of DEF.

It appears BlackRock is spearheading the dismantling of the U.S. system on behalf of the globalists. And the first domino they are pushing over is the energy sector. They are using DEF to get the party started.  This is one sector of the biggest downfalls in political repercussions this country has ever faced…??

Copied and pasted!!

Not good. People better start paying attention. Get these people out of office.

This last part of the viral post consisted of nothing more than unsupported conspiracy theories about BlackRock.

Company Statements

On June 20, a spokesperson for Pilot Company provided details about its shipping status with Union Pacific. The statement effectively cleared up any looming concerns over the possibility of a DEF shortage:

We can confirm that there is no embargo in place by Union Pacific at this time. We can also confirm that Pilot Company is not currently experiencing any shortages in our supply of diesel exhaust fuel (DEF). Shameek Konar offered this testimony to the Surface Transportation Board on April 27, 2022 – referring specifically to diesel exhaust fluid. Since that date, Pilot Company has had productive conversations with Union Pacific and is able to continue to utilize their rail services to supply our customers and guests. We look forward to maintaining this relationship to ensure that America’s over-the-road commercial trucking remains strong.

Also on June 20, a spokesperson for Union Pacific told us that the initial request to reduce shipments by rail car was strictly voluntary. Just like Pilot Company's statement, this information from Union Pacific called into question the idea that the U.S. would see a DEF shortage:

Union Pacific has not issued any formal embargoes related to inventory reduction efforts on our network. We asked customers to voluntarily reduce their own inventories and we continue to work with our customers to alleviate congestion on the network.

On April 11, we sent out this announcement to our customers, raising the possibility of "metering" traffic on our network. This would be akin to limiting the cars on a freeway to improve congestion, rather than allowing them all on the freeway, where they will slow down the overall traffic, jamming up on the freeway.

However, we have not implemented an embargo that mandated shippers reduce their private car fleets.

On May 6, we sent out an announcement that said we were making progress.

We continue to collaborate with our customers and report our progress regularly as we work to improve service.

In sum, there's no evidence at this time that there will be trucking and food shortages as a result of any actions related to Union Pacific and Pilot Flying J, or a shortage of DEF.

Copypasta posts on Facebook rarely contain sources. We, on the other hand, have listed all of the sources used in the research for this article below. If you value these kinds of stories that provide careful, detailed, fully sourced breakdowns to debunk questionable claims, feel free to browse the many options for supporting our work.

Sources:

“6 Answers About Diesel Exhaust Fluid.” Cummins Inc., https://www.cummins.com/news/2016/01/04/6-answers-about-diesel-exhaust-fluid.

“10 Best Truck Stops in America.” Prime, Inc., https://www.primeinc.com/trucking-blogs/10-best-truck-stops-in-america/.

Advance Auto Parts. https://shop.advanceautoparts.com/p/peak-bluedef-diesel-exhaust-fluid-25-gallons-def002/10082203-P.

Allen, Nathan. Russia to “Temporarily” Suspend Fertilizer Exports | Seeking Alpha. 10 Mar. 2022, https://seekingalpha.com/news/3812197-russia-to-temporarily-suspend-fertilizer-exports.

Bown, Chad P., and Yilin Wang. “China’s Recent Trade Moves Create Outsize Problems for Everyone Else.” PIIE, 25 Apr. 2022, https://www.piie.com/blogs/realtime-economic-issues-watch/chinas-recent-trade-moves-create-outsize-problems-everyone-else.

“Catherine Russell.” The Institute of Politics at Harvard University, https://iop.harvard.edu/fellows/catherine-russell.

Condos, David. “Western Kansas Wheat Crops Are Failing Just When the World Needs Them Most.” KCUR 89.3 - NPR in Kansas City, 9 June 2022, https://www.kcur.org/news/2022-06-09/western-kansas-wheat-crops-are-failing-just-when-the-world-needs-them-most.

EquipmentShare. What Happens If You Run Out of DEF? Nov. 2021, https://www.equipmentshare.com/blog-posts/what-happens-if-you-run-out-of-def.

“Largest Fertilizer Companies by Market Cap.” CompaniesMarketCap.com, https://companiesmarketcap.com/fertilizer/largest-companies-by-market-cap/.

MarketScreener. CF INDUSTRIES HOLDINGS, INC. https://www.marketscreener.com/quote/stock/CF-INDUSTRIES-HOLDINGS-I-12028/company/.

Pilot Company, https://www.pilotcompany.com/.

PTI. “Sri Lanka to Receive 65,000MT of Urea from India.” The Indian Express, 14 May 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/world/sri-lanka-to-receive-65000mt-of-urea-from-india-7916996/.

Rocker, Kenny. “Service Update – A Message from Kenny Rocker, EVP, Marketing & Sales.” Union Pacific, 6 May 2022, https://www.up.com/up/customers/announcements/customernews/allcustomernews/CN2022-21.html.

---. “Status of the Railroad - A Message from Kenny Rocker, EVP, Marketing & Sales.” Union Pacific, 11 Apr. 2022, https://www.up.com/up/customers/announcements/customernews/CN2022-15.html.

Simply Wall St. “Are Institutions Heavily Invested In Union Pacific Corporation’s (NYSE:UNP) Shares?” Simply Wall St, 9 May 2022, https://simplywall.st/stocks/us/transportation/nyse-unp/union-pacific/news/are-institutions-heavily-invested-in-union-pacific-corporati.

“Statement from President Joe Biden on the Appointment of Catherine Russell as Executive Director of UNICEF.” The White House, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/10/statement-from-president-joe-biden-on-the-appointment-of-catherine-russell-as-executive-director-of-unicef/.

STB Hearing on Urgent Issues in Freight Rail Service. Surface Transportation Board, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDxp8lUXDz0.

Sullivan, Sean, and Michael Scherer. “A Family Affair: Children and Other Relatives of Biden Aides Get Administration Jobs.” Washington Post, 18 June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-aides-relatives-jobs/2021/06/17/ab504a22-cea4-11eb-8cd2-4e95230cfac2_story.html.

“Surface Transportation Board.” Surface Transportation Board, https://www.stb.gov/.

The Home Depot. https://www.homedepot.com/.

“Thomas Donilon.” BlackRock, https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/biographies/thomas-donilon.

“Top Countries for Urea Fertilizer Production.” NationMaster, https://www.nationmaster.com/nmx/ranking/urea-fertilizer-production.

“United States of America Urea Import, 2002-2021.” Knoema, https://knoema.com//atlas/United-States-of-America/topics/Agriculture/Fertilizers-Import-Quantity-in-Nutrients/Urea-import.

“United States of America Urea Production, 2002-2021.” Knoema, https://knoema.com//atlas/United-States-of-America/topics/Agriculture/Fertilizers-Production-Quantity-in-Nutrients/Urea-production.

“Urea Export by Country, 2021.” Knoema, https://knoema.com//atlas/topics/Agriculture/Fertilizers-Export-Quantity-in-Nutrients/Urea-export.

“Urea Imports Worldwide by Country.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1281701/global-urea-import-volume-by-country/.

Veeder-Root, Gilbardo. What the DEF?! What Is Diesel Exhaust Fluid and Should Your Forecourt Have It? | Gilbarco Veeder-Root. https://www.gilbarco.com/us/blog/what-def-what-diesel-exhaust-fluid-and-should-your-forecourt-have-it.

Vogel, Kenneth P. “15 Obama Administration Power Couples.” Politico.com, 15 June 2009, https://www.politico.com/news/stories/0609/23647_Page2.html.

Zeidan, Adam and The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Roman Empire - Height and Decline of Imperial Rome.” Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Roman-Empire/Height-and-decline-of-imperial-Rome.

Zhong, Raymond. “This Chemical Is in Short Supply, and the Whole World Feels It.” The New York Times, 6 Dec. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/06/business/urea-fertilizer-food-prices.html.

Jordan Liles is a Snopes reporter with expertise in investigating misinformation, inauthentic social media activity, and scams.

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