Fracking – injecting high pressure fluid deep into rock – is a controversial method of extracting oil and gas.
Natural mineral and spring waters must, under EU legislation, come from a specified underground source, protected from pollution. Water cannot be treated, so protecting catchment areas is ‘of the highest concern,’ says the EFBW – because the sector cannot fall back on a plan B.
The European market demand for water with such specific purity requirements makes the category more sensitive than bottled waters in the US, where fracking has been used extensively.
‘Irreversible damage’ to consumer confidence
Hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ - refers to the exploitation of oil and gas from deep layers of shale rock. This process involves artificially fracturing rocks by injecting fracking fluids (water, sand and chemicals) at high pressure. While the practice is used in the US, the sector is in its infancy in Europe.
Part of the controversy surrounding European fracking comes from fears chemicals could escape and contaminate groundwater.
“Any groundwater contamination will immediately and potentially irreversibly damage consumer confidence in water quality, whether utility water or bottled water,” the EFBW told BeverageDaily.com
Main areas of concern are leaking wells, insufficient waste water treatment, and potential seismic activity, the federation added.
Sensitive: natural mineral and spring water
Fracking is of particular concern for natural mineral and spring water producers, because of the strict definitions for these products.
“Under EU legislation, natural mineral and spring waters must come from a specific underground source which has to be protected from all risks of pollution,” continued the EFBW. “They may not be disinfected nor chemically treated. In addition, natural mineral waters must demonstrate ‘original purity’ at source and stability of composition.
“Because of these strict quality requirements and of the prohibition of any corrective treatments for natural mineral and spring waters, the protection of the environment around the sources, the catchment areas, is absolutely critical.
“This is why, sometimes as early as a century ago, natural mineral and spring water producers have worked in public-private partnership with local communities, public authorities and farmers to ensure rigorous source protection.”
“Any industrial activity in the catchment area of the protected sources is therefore of highest concern to the bottled water industry as the sector has no ‘Plan B’. If a natural mineral water source is contaminated, the original purity criterion is no longer met and the producer will lose his exploration license of the source.”
Along with EurEau (which represents the European water sector), the EFBW wants to draw the attention of European authorities to the need to adequately protect underground water resources in the context of shale gas exploration.
Setting out a position statement, the groups welcome the European Commission’s efforts to assess the potential impact of fracking.
However, they highlight that existing EU legislation does not cover fracking risks specifically – although provisions in other legislation could potentially be applied. Therefore, they want to see a new, comprehensive legislative framework for clarification.
“The [current] situation creates quite a legal maze for member states to take appropriate measures and for producers and consumers to be reassured,” said the EFBW.
“We feel the best way forward to reassure operators and consumers alike is to adopt a specific binding legislation at EU level. Water protection has to be a focal point within such legislation and the prohibition to frack in protected underground water catchment areas has to be clearly stated.”
EFBW held a conference earlier this year to discuss fracking’s potential effects on the bottled water industry, and says such dialogue between stakeholders is essential.
North America and Europe
The EFBW says that, while US fracking can illustrate the risks involved, it is hard for European producers to use the US as a comparison because most bottled waters in the country allow for treatment (unlike mineral waters and spring waters in Europe).
“The European bottled water market is a natural water market. 97% of all bottled water sold is either natural mineral water (82%) or spring water (15%). This is unique compared to other continents like the US where the bulk of bottled water sold is processed water, meaning that in case of contamination some corrective measures would be available.”
While the bottled water industry is particularly sensitive to fracking, the wider food and beverage industry also rely on water sources.
“It is a subject that affects everybody,” continued the EFBW. “This includes the consumer who is asking for water that is safe to drink, the wider beverage industry, but also all industries depending on quality water for manufacturing, such as food manufacturers.”