German Brewers Say Fracking Will Mess Up the Country's Beer

The connection between national foods and fears over natural gas exploration
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A waitress carries beer mugs after the opening ceremony of Munich's 176th Oktoberfest in Munich September 19, 2009. (Reuters)

Fracking opponents have come up with plenty of interesting arguments against the practice, but perhaps the most compelling yet comes just this week from Germany: Blast apart our soil, the German Brewers Federation told the federal government, and you risk befouling our national beverage.

Brewing the world's best hefeweizen, you see, requires great drinking water -- and fracking, they said, "could reduce or even completely eliminate the security of the water supply." In a letter, the organization argued that this newfangled way of extracting energy would conflict with Europe's oldest food purity law, the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, which stated, "We wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be barley, hops and water."

Nasty fracking wastewater, they say, is not on that list.

Germany is Europe's biggest beer producer and has the continent's third-largest per-capita consumption, after the Czech Republic and Austria. So perhaps Big Beer is indeed the best-positioned group to pressure the government of Angela Merkel, who is currently attempting to draft up fracking regulations that would allow the exploration of Germany's untapped natural gas reserves without harming the environment.

It should be noted that the actual intent of the 1516 law was just to specify which grains can be used for brewing, and not to prohibit some futuristic extraction of locomotive fuel. And of course, those who support fracking argue that it doesn't pollute groundwater (though that position is disputed).

But what's interesting here is just how extensive the opposition to fracking is in Europe, which has nearly as much recoverable shale gas as the United States but lags far behind in extracting it.

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"Europe has 75 percent of the United States' shale resources," British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters Wednesday, "but America is drilling 100 times faster than Europe."

Some countries, like France, have already instituted fracking bans, with the industry minister saying the practice causes "irreversible pollution." There too, activists cite the sanctity of cherished foodstuffs as a reason not to drill:

"We are not interested in bringing factories to the countryside," farmer Christophe Charpentier told French radio. "We make regional products here, we have AOC cheeses," he said, referring to an official French food label. "I don't see what we have to gain with having oil drilling here."

In the U.K., where a fracking ban was recently lifted, three activists from a group called Frack-off chained themselves to the equipment in a drilling site in protest.

Meanwhile Poland, which has some of the continent's largest shale-gas deposits, has embraced the practice somewhat and has already issued 20 exploration licenses. But even those have been controversial: In 2011, Polish activists brought a flash mob and "Frack You" banner to a meeting between Halliburton, Talisman Energy, Dow Chemical, and the Polish government.

But it's not just outraged brewmasters and environmentalists holding up Europe's foray into fracking: costs are higher in Europe, regulations are stiffer, and the infrastructure of pipelines isn't as well-developed. Many European countries are also far more densely populated than much of the U.S., which exacerbates concerns over potential methane leaks or earth tremors.

Fracking makes economic sense for Europe and could help Eastern European nations shake their dependence on Russian energy. But what the German debate reveals is just how deep the discomfort with untested technology runs in some parts of the continent, and just how much pushback European policymakers will face if they press ahead with shale gas exploration. After all, the first Kansas field was only fractured in 1947, but Europe's been making beer for centuries.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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