Frackers ignore German beer angst at their peril

May 24, 2013

By Kevin Allison and Olaf Storbeck

The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.

Contemporary Germans tend to be open-minded and tolerant. Their permissiveness ends when it comes to beer. It must be eight degrees cold, with a decent head and brewed only with the purest water, barley, hops and yeast. Gas drillers eyeing potential shale opportunities in Europe ignore at their peril this centuries-old fastidiousness, which dates back to the famous Reinheitsgebot of 1516.

Germany’s Brauer-Bund, a brewers’ association, has warned that fracking for shale gas could endanger the country’s lager supply by polluting water wells. The alarm at the drilling technique, already in widespread use in the United States, comes as Berlin is weighing a law that would allow limited drilling, part of a broader effort to diversify energy supplies as the country abandons nuclear power.

Fracking was always going to be contentious in ecologically-minded Germany, but the brewers’ resistance raises the political stakes considerably.

Beer isn’t just an 8 billion euro business in Germany. It’s part of the national identity. For many Germans, the forced opening of the country’s beer market to foreign competition in the 1980s was a cultural trauma – even worse than abandoning the Deutschmark.

It all points to a problem for European policymakers who want to replicate America’s recent energy boom. In the United States, fracking’s economic benefits have trumped environmental concerns. European drillers already have to contend with a denser population, which makes it easier to organise local resistance to fracking and less convenient to exploit shale gas.

Whether it’s the beauty of the British countryside or the integrity of German lager, cultural heritage may be a bigger barrier to industrial-scale shale development in Europe. The Germans might fancy cheap gas. But not if it messes with their beer.

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America’s recent energy boom is anything but that for the vast majority of car owners. Prices at the pump are still high, and America’s utilities are still burning coal throughout the most regions. The energy boom has only been for the CEOs of major fossil fuel extractors, not the consumer and certainly not the environment.

Germany is spot on in worrying about its water resource. Even in Colorado, a very dry region that survives only on dams and irrigation (government build and funded), fracking profits trump any concern about water resources. People forget that fracking, like most oil drilling, uses lots of water, which by the way is never again clean enough for human consumption.

So ask yourself, what can man live without? Water or Gas? Everywhere in the world, from China to the US mid-west, water is at an acute shortage. It isn’t some wacko greenie enviromentalists that are worried about fracking, it’s us humans that live on at leat 8 glasses of water a day.

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