Local beer brewers craft message against “fracking”

Hickenlooper says he’s reviewing their complaints
The Colorado Statesman

An unlikely group of constituents has joined a growing number of citizens in expressing concerns to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper over regulating the oil and gas industry, and it is probably not something the governor wants to raise a toast to.

Twenty-six craft brewers have sent a letter to the governor and launched a campaign expressing their fears over impacts of oil and gas development to air, water, land, communities and — especially — their own craft beer industry. The industry relies heavily on crisp, clean Rocky Mountain water.

The conflict for Hickenlooper is real. For one, he is a brother of the craft brew industry, having co-founded Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988. Brewers have always been some of his best friends and biggest supporters. Then add into the mash the governor’s career prior to Wynkoop, when he worked as a geologist for the oil and gas industry.

David Liechty, Hogshead Headmaster of Hops, smiles as he shows off four brews from their north Denver bar. But he and a couple dozen other craft brewers say their fears over oil and gas development in the state — and especially “fracking” — leaves a bad taste in their mouths. And who did they recently complain to? None other than Colorado Governor and brewmaster-in-chief John Hickenlooper.

Much of the brewers’ concerns revolve around hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Because fracking employs the pressure of a fluid to increase extraction rates — often times including chemicals, sand and water — fears have grown that groundwater can become contaminated.

Some of the craft beer brewers and aficionados drink Hogshead brews and discuss Colorado water and air politics. From left to right are Manny Lopez, Jenny Davis-Schley of Progressive Promotions, beer lover Jeremy Rubingh, environmental activist Clinton Thomas, Glenwood Canyon head brewer Chip Holland, and local supporter Nick Andresen.

“As a former brewer, you know that the most important ingredient in good beer is good clean water!” states the letter from the brewers to Hickenlooper dated June 26.

Glenwood Canyon Brewery’s head brewer Chip Holland joins the group at Hogshead Brewery in Denver to review Colorado environmental conditions in relation to its microbrewing industry.
Photos by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The message goes on to highlight the importance of the industry, pointing to a contribution last year of $446 million to the state’s economy and nearly 6,000 jobs.

“We ask you, as our governor and a craft beer enthusiast, to protect what we all value — clean water, clear skies and Colorado’s great outdoors,” the letter continues. “We urge you to support stronger standards for oil and gas industry operations. The quality of life we all enjoy and the integrity of communities where craft brewing thrives are depending on this.”

On June 28, a handful of the brewers met over beers at Hogshead Brewery in Denver for a roundtable discussion. There weren’t many details offered — in fact the brewers were unaware of legislation this year that aimed to further regulate the industry — but they were fired up and willing to learn.

“I hope he does the right thing. And if he does, maybe we’ll vote him back in,” declared Stephen Kirby, the dreadlocked owner of Hogshead Brewery who speaks with a sharp British accent. “That’s all it is, is politics, aye?

“The oil and gas industry… they get huge tax breaks from the state and the federal government, and I think it’s responsible for them to do something with it, and if that means my water doesn’t get [expletive] up for brewing, then I’d be very happy about that,” Kirby continued.

Chip Holland, owner of Glenwood Canyon Brewery in Glenwood, acknowledged that he and his group have a lot to learn about both oil and gas policy and politics. But he said the goal is simply to further the discussion.

He got the idea to launch the campaign after a customer approached him with fears that increased drilling could contaminate water and impact brewing. The brewers say they have not yet noticed any change in quality, but that they would like to be proactive so as to stop a problem from occurring.

Holland points to the recent leak in Parachute, where operators recovered thousands of gallons of oil and contaminated groundwater near a creek that runs into the Colorado River.

“Anytime you can be proactive and get the ball rolling and get some awareness going early on, it’s going to be better than after the fact,” said Holland.

The outreach by the brewing industry only adds to a long list of constituents who have expressed concerns to the governor. He has come under intense scrutiny and felt the wrath of environmentalists after supporting the oil and gas industry this year at the legislature. His relationship with the industry has earned him the nickname “Frackenlooper,” a play on the controversial drilling process.

It started with Longmont. The city enacted its own rules and regulations, overstepping the authority of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Longmont is being sued by the state over the rules.

Then voters in the Boulder County community decided to ban so-called fracking. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association turned around and sued Longmont over the prohibition. Hickenlooper has vowed to support the industry in its lawsuit.

The governor has unapologetically defended not only the oil and gas industry, but also fracking itself. During a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in February, Hickenlooper told the panel that he once took a swig of frack fluid produced by Houston-based Halliburton. His opinion is that there is an unjustifiable frenzy surrounding the controversial drilling process.

Democratic lawmakers started to turn on the governor this year as well when he sent his lobbyists to kill or water down several pieces of legislation that aimed to hold the oil and gas industry accountable. One of those bills would have implemented minimum daily fines on the industry.

But to have his longtime allies in Colorado craft brewers join the frustration comes as a surprise. The 26 microbreweries that have joined the effort represent smaller outfits across the state. Larger craft brewing companies such as New Belgium and Left Hand are not on the list. But the smaller brewers say they have only just launched the campaign. They believe they will earn the support of larger brewers since water is so critical to their operations.

Governor and oil and gas industry respond

The governor’s office said it is aware of the brewers’ concerns, and is in the process of reviewing the letter and preparing a response.

“The craft brewing industry is a great economic driver for Colorado and we value our relationship with brewers across the state,” said Eric Brown, a spokesman for Hickenlooper. “We are reviewing the letter and will respond appropriately.”

The oil and gas industry itself has taken a more outgoing approach. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association sent letters to the individual brewers and to the Colorado Brewers Guild saying it shares in concerns about air and water.

“We do love our craft beer,” writes Tisha Schuller, president and chief executive of COGA.

COGA has requested a meeting with the brewers to listen to concerns. But she worries about their campaign turning into “political theater.”

“Today oil and gas is the issue du jour for many activists,” wrote Schuller. “Tomorrow it could be your business if they disagree with the product, the way it’s made, or some other business or operational practice your industry employs. Our business interests must stay united to ensure Colorado is a positive place for business investment.”

Schuller pointed out that the oil and gas industry employs over 40,000 Coloradans and supports over 100,000. It contributed $31 billion to the economy and paid over $1.1 billion in state and local taxes.

“But just as important for many of your employees, the 100,000 Coloradans in the industry enjoy a nice Colorado beer while enjoying the blessing of living in our shared state,” stated Schuller.

In a separate statement emailed to The Colorado Statesman, Schuller said she was a bit surprised that the brewers launched a campaign without first contacting COGA.

“While we would have hoped the brewers would have engaged with COGA in a dialogue first, we want to make this a genuine conversation by sitting down, discussing the issues and working together to create mutual understanding and solutions,” she said. “That is the Colorado brand and way — compromise, middle ground and reasonableness.”

—Peter@coloradostatesman.com

See the July 12 print edition for full photo coverage