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Groningen Earthquakes: Dutch make gas extraction the subject of a political and legal battle

The NAM, for example, had the reputation of being an exemplary company that neatly arranged its affairs for its citizens. That picture is different now. Allegations that the risks of gas extraction from small fields are not so, are no longer believed.

Printed below is an English translation of an article published today by the Dutch Financial Times, Financieele Dagblad. NAM is the Shell/Exxon Joint Venture company responsible for the earthquake blighted Groningen Gas Field and consequential potential bill for untold billions to deal with damaged residences.

Gas is now a dirty word outside of Groningen

Bas Knoop

The earthquake trauma of the Groningers now also causes unrest among citizens living near smaller gas fields. From Steenwijkerland to Waalwijk: more and more places are brewing resistance. Together with local authorities, citizens make gas extraction the subject of a political and legal battle with The Hague.

Frank den Braven does not want to scare anyone. Waalwijk is no Groningen. There are no houses here that collapse. But still: in the Brabant region of Langstraat, gas extraction has to stop, says the English teacher. Den Braven is one of the driving forces behind the protest in the municipality against expansion of gas production by the Canadian energy company Vermilion. Through his Facebook page ‘Niet Fracken in Waalwijk’ he tries to mobilize Waalwijkers for his fight against the gas.

‘The situation in Groningen also made people in Waalwijk aware of the risks and consequences of gas extraction’, says Den Braven, who himself is not living above the gas bubble. “Our eyes are open. Well, then the ministry and Vermilion can maintain that the risks of earthquakes and subsidence are small here, but they also said that about Groningen for years. And should you take a look. “

Feeling wins from facts

Waalwijk is not the only municipality where there are protests against gas extraction. From Woerden to Westerveld and from Zuidhorn to Hardenberg; in various places there is resistance. In addition to the large Groningen field, the Netherlands also has 240 small gas fields, most of which are located in the North Sea. Many of the fields, such as those in Waalwijk, have been in production for years. Until recently without too much excitement.

But the earthquake trauma of the Groningers led to a lightning-fast tilt of sentiment. Gas is suddenly a dirty word outside of Groningen. Citizens and local authorities make gas extraction the subject of a political and legal battle with The Hague, in which feelings often win facts. More and more often, the judge is the end of plans for the extension or expansion of gas extraction.

The gas protests swell at a time when the gas from the small fields is becoming increasingly important. This spring, the government decided that the gas production in Groningen accelerated to zero. The gas tap will be closed by 2030 at the latest, Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Minister Wiebes promised the Groningers.

At the same time, the VVD Minister acknowledges that as long as families and businesses are still dependent on gas, winning or importing, it remains necessary. Wiebes prefers own gas over imported gas from, for example, Russia or Norway. This means that the government can not just stop gas extraction from small fields, although Wiebes no longer issues exploration permits for finding new gas fields on land.

Texas of Brabant

In Waalwijk, the provincial department of the Socialist Party is trying to make this dreadful monday evening the spirits ripe for a walk to the Council of State (RvS), the highest administrative judge. In a hotel room right along the main road N261, about 30 Waalwijkers listen to a passionate speech by Sandra Beckerman, Member of Parliament for the SP and Groningen. The attendance is low, in comparison with previous, popular residents nights. “Convince each other and the local authorities,” says Beckerman. ‘This is too small a group to be able to enforce something.’

Gas has been extracted from the Waalwijk-Noord field since 1991. Protests remained long. In fact, the Waalwijkers initially welcomed the gas extraction. ‘The hope was that the gas, after the decline of the shoe industry, would give the region an economic boost’, says Den Braven. ‘The Langstraat, the Texas of Brabant. But that turned out to be vain hope. Waalwijk does not benefit from gas production. There was no extra employment. ”

Chemicals in the ground

The vote really only happened after Vermilion filed an application last year to extend the gas production until 2026.

The Canadian company, which also exploits small gas fields in dozens of other locations, sees a chance to extract more gas from the Brabant underground via hydraulic stimulation – fracking. Here, under high pressure, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the ground to break deep earth layers and increase gas production. In the most favorable scenario, Vermilion would be able to win 1.6 billion cubic meters of gas by 2026.

Minister Wiebes of Economic Affairs and Climate, following advice from State Supervision of Mines (SSM), agreed with Fracking in Waalwijk. But the municipality, province and water board signed a protest.

The fracking method is controversial due to the extraction of shale gas in the United States. There, much larger quantities of chemicals and water go into the ground. Risks: pollution of drinking water and soil collapse.

Fracking to shale gas is prohibited in the Netherlands. ‘Fracken is a collective term for hydraulic stimulation’, says Wouter van der Zee, head of State Supervision of Mines. ‘Fracking to shale gas can not be compared to fracking in Waalwijk. The technique has been used in the Netherlands for about fifty years. I have no indications that problems have ever arisen, but the risk of tremors can not be ruled out completely. ‘

Wrong signal

Fracking or not, the Waalwijk alderman Dilek Odabasi (party GroenLinksaf) thinks that the discussion about this is only a small part of a much larger debate. ‘The Netherlands must become more sustainable, gas use is no longer appropriate. Our ambition is a climate neutral Waalwijk in 2043. Our residents would then send the wrong message if we agreed with Vermilion’s plan to win more gas in the coming years. ‘

Waalwijk is therefore considering, in consultation with the surrounding municipalities, the province and the water board, a course to the RvS to get the extraction plan out of the table. But first, Odabasi wants to wait for the final decision of the ministry, which will probably follow at the end of this year. Hundreds of objections have been filed against the extraction plan.

Groningen states

It would not be the first time that local authorities go to court to stop a gas decree from the national government. In June, the BoS set a line through Vermilion’s plan for a test drilling in the municipality of Krimpenerwaard. The municipalities Westerveld (Drenthe) and Steenwijkerland (Overijssel) booked less success. Together they plan to expand gas production in Eesveen against the Vermilion plan. The Ministry of EZK gave permission for this. At the BoS, the two municipalities demanded a ban on gas extraction until a decision is taken in a basic procedure that is still ongoing.

But the RvS ruled on Wednesday that Vermilion can continue with the gas production in Eesveen. The highest administrative judge states that the risks of subsidence and possible earthquakes are ‘negligibly small’. ‘We also understand that the Netherlands is not finished from the one day to the next,’ says a disappointed alderman Wilfried de Jong of Westerveld. ‘But if Vermilion wants to win more gas here, then it is important for the peace of our citizens that everything is clear and well arranged at the front. That is not the case right now. ”

For example, according to De Jong, there is no fully-developed claims settlement and the risks of subsidence and earthquakes have not been properly mapped by Vermilion due to the extra gas extraction. ‘People are afraid of Groningen conditions.’

More realism

Sven Tummers, director of Vermilion, does not consider all these comparisons with the situation in Groningen appropriate. ‘You can not compare the gas production from the small fields with the production from the Groningen field. The amount of gas that is extracted from the small fields is actually a few factors smaller than in Groningen (see also box, ed.). We have gone wrong in naming the risks that would stick to this. ‘

Tummers argues for more realism in the gas debate. He acknowledges the need for greening of the energy market. Vermilion tries to use natural gas as a ‘kind of transitional fuel to a more sustainable society’. “That transition will take a few years. If you now stop gas production, you slow down that transition. ‘

But just explain that to concerned citizens who live on a gas bubble. Tummers recognizes that this is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. ‘Under the denomination Groningen, gas extraction is placed in a corner of the globe. We therefore need to communicate even better which risks are associated with gas extraction, because natural gas remains essential for the time being. ‘

MAIN BOXES

In brief

After Groningen, gas production now also leads to unrest among citizens in other places in the country. From Steenwijkerland to Waalwijk: more and more places are brewing resistance. Residents and local authorities are making natural gas the subject of a political and legal battle with politics in The Hague, in which feelings often win facts. The gas protests swell that the gas from the smaller fields is becoming increasingly important.

Professor: ‘Citizens lost confidence in the institutions’

The fact that citizens now oppose gas extraction outside the provincial borders of Groningen is what Tom Postmes, professor of social psychology at the University of Groningen, calls ‘no more than logical’. He points out that for a long time the Netherlands considered natural gas as a source of prosperity, but after ‘Groningen’ that has turned into a source of danger. ‘The events in Groningen also provided clarity in the rest of the Netherlands’, says Postmes. ‘It is not only clear that there are risks associated with gas extraction, but also that you, as citizens, can do something about it. Look at Groningen, where the persistent resistance of the population led to the shutdown of the gas tap. ‘ That the probability of earthquakes in the Groningen field is many times greater than in the smaller fields, due to geological characteristics and size, does not matter that much in the public debate, says Postmes. ‘Too many citizens have lost confidence in the institutions in the gas dossier. The NAM, for example, had the reputation of being an exemplary company that neatly arranged its affairs for its citizens. That picture is different now. Allegations that the risks of gas extraction from small fields are not so, are no longer believed.

Figures and facts about gas extraction in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, almost 24 billion cubic meters of gas were extracted from the Groningen field in 2017. By way of comparison: from the small fields on land, the amount of gas extracted amounted to around 6 billion cubic meters. A total of 12 billion cubic meters of gas was extracted from the fields at sea. This is shown by requested figures from the State Supervision of Mines. Also in terms of the number of earthquakes, there are big differences between the Groningen field and the rest of the country. Between September 2013 and September 2018, 228 quakes occurred in Groningen. In the small fields, the number of quakes remained limited to twenty, seven of which occurred in the past year. Most of the quakes in the small fields are concentrated in the north of the Netherlands, for example in fields around Emmen and Annerveen

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