Writer and upstate New York resident Hal Smith on the gas-industry marauder threatening his beer.
It made my day when I learned that Brewery Ommegang, which makes premium Belgian-style ales near Cooperstown, N.Y., was involved in a lawsuit to protect one of the best aquifers in the region.
Cooperstown, a quaint, historic village known primarily for its Baseball Hall of Fame, is one of my favorite destinations for a day trip from my rural home near Binghamton. Cooperstown is also a hotbed of resistance to horizontal hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the controversial technology that now makes it feasible to extract natural gas from a mile under Ommegang, as well as from under my own beloved place in the woods.
Geologists have known for years that a vast reserve of natural gas is trapped in the Marcellus Shale formation, which lies beneath upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. These four states sit atop the largest known untapped shale reserve in the United States.
Some farmers and other landowners in the Cooperstown area, including those who own (and lease out) half of the acreage surrounding Ommegang’s 140-acre site, have sold their mineral rights to gas drillers to supplement incomes and high property taxes, with the expectation of easy money.
What’s the catch? The fracking process shatters shale by the high-pressure injection of 1 million gallons of water mixed with sand and other chemicals per frack. Multiply that by several fracks per site, and that’s millions of gallons of water and toxic waste, either left underground or brought up for disposal.
Sometimes, far more than the industry admits, water wells are poisoned, and odorless methane gas comes out of taps along with drinking water. Strike a match near such a running faucet and the gas can burst into a fireball, possibly singeing your eyebrows, just as you can see in “Gasland,” an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the dangers of fracking.
“The potential threat of compromised water and environmental quality is real,” says Ommegang’s Larry Bennett, explaining why his company filed an amicus brief in a court case about the right of towns to pass zoning ordinances that ban gas drilling. “Many of the chemicals used in drilling are not removable by any filtering that any entity less than the size of a huge city can afford, if then.”
The brewery uses more than a million gallons of water annually. Trucking it in would be prohibitively expensive and undermine the reason Ommegang built its farmstead-style brewery on the site of a former hop farm; its wells yield plenty of pristine water.
Neither life nor beer is possible without good water. It’s the world’s most widely consumed drink and averages about 60 percent of our body weight. But beer virtually is water, comprising 90 to 97 percent. Of course, it’s the hops, malt, yeast and the brewer’s skill that turn water to beer. Water is fairly inconsequential to brewing, right? Not exactly.
Water, especially its pH—which is governed by local geology—is a key factor in determining a beer’s style. Sure, a brewmaster can manipulate water chemistry, but it makes the most sense to go with the flow. Soft water favors lagers and darker ales; hard water produces paler ales. Thus, Dublin’s hard water produces stout; the soft waters of Pilzen, in the Czech Republic, set the standard for pilsner.
Although I don’t own a water-based business, I’m in the same boat with Ommegang: My owner-built home of the last 36 years would become worthless if frackers screw up neighboring land. Regrettably, some area farmers face bankruptcy. But betting on a boom-and-bust industry and fouling the aquifers we share is most certainly not the right answer. I’ve built stone walls, planted trees, turned our oaks into posts and beams, and buried three dogs on land that’s been in my wife’s family for generations. No amount of gas money can replace what we stand to lose.
The good news is that two state courts, including the one that considered Ommegang’s amicus brief, recently upheld the right of communities to zone out gas drilling. Of course, those victories may be reversed if the decision’s appealed. But tonight, I’m going to raise a glass of Witte—“it’s worth the wheat”—in honor of Ommegang.
Putting it plainly in my native Bronx vernacular, our message is: Don’t frack with our water—and most seriously, don’t frack up our beer.
Hal Smith is a freelance journalist living in upstate New York. He has contributed to the New York Times, Playboy and more.