Waitress, There's Frack in My Beer

a | A

Next time you crack open a beer, see if you can taste the frack.

Accordingto the Association of German Breweries, hydraulic fracturingto extract oil and natural gas from shale rock poses a threat to the taste of pilsner and they're campaigning against legislation to regulate the extraction process.

This story is a tabloid newspaper editor's dream. They get to illustrate articles with pictures of pretty German waitresses bearing beer, and talk about serious things such as energy and pollution all at the same time. Fracking has been a marginal issue for most Europeans until now, because Europe doesn't do much of it. But if anything can raise public awareness, at least in Germany, it is a threat to Oktoberfest.

The beer makers' association, which represents several large breweries, is arguing that the planned legislation doesn't adequately protect ground water. "We are concerned that fracking endangers the brewing water that more than half of Germany's breweries take from private wells," Marc-Oliver Huhnholz told Bloomberg News. "And that it threatens our absolutely pure beer."

Germany is the biggest producer and third-largest consumer of beer per capita in Europe, after the Czech Republic and Austria. The industry employs more than 25,000 people and had sales of 8 billion euros ($10 billion) in Germany last year. The brewers are citing a law on water purity that was written in 1516, somewhat before fracking, to back their argument.

It looks a tad frothy. To begin with, compared with the U.S., fracking in Germany is barely out of the starting gate. Different European countries have different policies: In France fracking is banned; in Poland, which has large natural gas reserves, it is permitted; in the U.K., the government said in December that it would lift a temporary ban; in Germany, the government has tried, without success, to introduce legislation to clarify where fracking is allowed.

The science behind the danger -- or lack of it -- that fracking poses to drinking water is unclear. A recent paper in the journal Science identified 29 potentially hazardous chemicals that were injected into the ground in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well as elevated levels of methane gas in water wells close to fracking operations, but no firm evidence that the process caused well pollution.

Still, fracking is starting to move up the political and environmentalist agenda. On May 22, for example, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron saidat a European Union summit where fracking was discussed that the region, "mustn't be left behind in the global race. Europe has 75 percent of the United States' shale resources, but America is drilling 100 times faster than Europe."

The British Beer and Pub Association said in a statement that the land of warm beer is concerned, too. "With over half of British beer using boreholes for water extraction, this is an issue we will be monitoring. Water is our main ingredient, so quality of supply is crucial. We would certainly expect co-operation with both industry and government to ensure that any future fracking does not impact on water quality used for brewing."

If that resolves anything, it is that if the Germans speak out the rest of Europe sits up and listens.

(Tim Judah contributes to Bloomberg View's World View blog from Europe. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Tim Judah at timjuday@gmail.com