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The New York Times: Earthquakes Are Jolting the Netherlands. Gas Drilling Is to Blame.

GRONINGEN, the Netherlands — Driving through fields of low-lying Dutch farmland you pass an occasional odd cluster of silvery pipes and tanks. They are the only visible sign that deep below this northeast corner of the Netherlands is one of the world’s largest natural gas fields.

Unless you stop by one of the nearby farmhouses weakened by earthquakes linked to gas extraction. At her handsome home in the village of Appingedam, Nicole van Eijkern pointed to sagging external walls and cracked ceilings. Heavy beams buttress her house, inside and out, and it is scheduled to be torn down.

“In 10 years it went from a good house to a ruin,” she said.

Earthquakes are blighting a 350-square-mile region where windmills once powered homes and farms. Many of the 585,000 residents who relished the centuries-old landscape are now ruing the riches beneath their feet.

Discovered in 1959 by Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell and still operated by a joint venture of these two giants, the Groningen field was long a cornucopia, and it made this small country something of a petroleum power. Starting in the 1960s, the gas was a source of domestically produced and relatively clean fuel that brought modern comforts like central heating to the Netherlands and northwest Europe.

It helped wean the country from coal, with revenues from the gas sales adding hundreds of billions of euros to the national budget, enabling the growth of a generous welfare state.

Now those benefits seem debatable.

They have been outweighed by the side effects of gas production. Decades of extraction has reduced pressure on the gas-bearing rocks below the surface, causing them to contract. That has led the ground to sink by about a foot, and earthquakes have rumbled. More than a thousand tremors have been recorded since the mid-1980s. Thousands of homes and buildings have been damaged, including some of the region’s rich stock of medieval churches. Residents readily say they fear harm should quakes shake loose chimneys or ceilings.

While most of the tremors have been small, about 100 have been of a magnitude 2.0 or greater, which can damage property. Residents recall the quakes by the names of the communities that suffer the most — with the village of Huizinge in 2012 rocked by a 3.6 jolt that analysts say soured public opinion against the gas industry.

Each earthquake is different, said Anke Carter, a university administrator from the village of ’t Zandt. Sometimes furniture “shakes and moves.” Sometimes there is a roar like “rolling thunder.” And one quake rippled the flat Dutch countryside “like a wave on the sea,” she said.

Cracks run through the brickwork of Ms. Carter’s early-20th-century house, and wooden beams have been bolted to the walls to stabilize them.

This slow-motion disaster is forcing the Dutch government to curtail gas production with consequences that are likely to be profound for its economy. To calm the seismic activity, gas flows have been throttled back about two-thirds, beginning in 2013. In September, the government said it aimed to halt extraction completely by mid-2022.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Tim Boersma, a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “For decades, gas production has been an important building block for the Dutch economy.”

The fate of the Groningen field may foreshadow what oil companies and petroleum-producing countries will face as the climate change debate intensifies. Already there are costly demands for repairs from homeowners, many of whom say the energy companies and the government have ignored or deflected their complaints.

Some homeowners have filed multiple claims because new quakes often lead to new damage.

The Dutch government responded to public outcry in 2018 when it took over decision-making about production from Shell and Exxon Mobil. Their joint venture, Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij, or NAM, remains responsible for all costs related to the field’s exploration.

NAM was, until 2018, responsible for assessing and paying for repairs. That role, too, has been taken over by government agencies that assess damage and bill the joint venture.

NAM has suspended dividends to its shareholders to build up its financial reserves to address the problems. NAM’s earthquake-related costs, paid out since 2012, now add up to 2.7 billion euros, according to Shell. Shell’s chief executive, Ben van Beurden, told shareholders this year that the joint venture, which has other petroleum operations, had the funds to pay “any earthquake-related costs under all scenarios.”

The gas still in the Groningen field — an estimated 17 years of the Netherlands’ consumption at current rates — fits the description of a “stranded asset,” petroleum deposits that cannot be sold and used as fuel. The companies will not be compensated for its loss, estimated at $70 billion, and the government will also be taking a hit.

The Dutch state has a 40 percent stake in the entity responsible for exploiting the Groningen field and earned, for many years, 90 percent of the profits. Now, it will receive 73 percent of the profits and pay the same share of the costs.

The process of closing Groningen is moving faster than plans to replace it. Politicians pitch the situation as an opportunity to kick the fossil fuel habit. (Gas burns cleaner than oil or coal but it is still a carbon emitter.) Large energy users like chemical producers and factories “all know that they need a new perspective,” said Nienke Homan, the Groningen regional minister for energy transition and climate. “It will be a new era for them.”

Along with backing wind and solar projects, the authorities are betting on hydrogen, a clean fuel that can be produced using electricity. Ms. Homan has been working to arrange €90 million from governments, including the European Union, and industry to create a “hydrogen valley” in the Groningen area. Natural gas pipelines would be retrofitted to carry hydrogen to power trucks, cars and factories.

Much of this new energy will materialize well into the future. The more immediate consequence of closing down Groningen will be increased imports from Russia, not only for the Netherlands but for consumers in Germany and other parts of Northern Europe.

But that imported gas will still need a tweak. The Netherlands is building a plant to add nitrogen to the imported gas to suit local industrial standards. Gasunie, the state-owned gas distributor, is also backing a liquefied natural gas terminal at Brunsbüttel, on the Elbe River in northern Germany, which plans to accept exports from the United States and elsewhere.

“We need Russian gas,” said Hans Coenen, Gasunie’s vice president for corporate strategy, but “politicians also want to have a certain insurance premium against too much Russian gas.” Policymakers in both Europe and the United States worry that Moscow could use gas for political leverage.

Throttling back production in Groningen appears to be damping down earthquakes, but the danger persists. Laslo Evers, head of seismology at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, a research organization, said he expected the frequency and intensity of the seismic activity to decrease, but that does not rule out quakes such as a 3.4 magnitude tremor in May.

“Nobody knows, ” Mr. Evers said when asked how long earthquakes could continue. “If it is in terms of years or tens of years, I think nobody has a clear answer to that.”

Frustration over repairs and compensation continue. A local newspaper documented homeowners’ travails with a book called “Ik Wacht,” or “I’m Waiting.”

“The problem for people is the bureaucracy — the fact that they can’t have control of their lives,” said Susan Top, director of Gasberaad, an organization that coordinates repair requests.

Homeowners pull out stacks of correspondence, dated year after year, with government agencies and engineering firms. Even after fixes are made, residents say, a fresh tremor can mean new damage. Ms. Top said the endless process was “making people sick.”

Residents partly blame their predicament on their distance from the country’s major cities.

“Nobody in The Hague realized what was going on for a long time,” said Jeanette Ubels, a safety officer at a nearby industrial area whose house in Westeremden needs major repairs. “I suppose it is because we are in the north and not in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam area.”

Some who can afford to pay quickly for the repairs are hoping they can recover costs later. On a recent day, Nienke and Jaap Pastoor were supervising the replacement of a damaged brick barn on their dairy farm.

“At first you think, ‘Oh! The NAM will pay,’” Mr. Pastoor said. But NAM is slow, he added, and no business can afford that sort of delay.

“You have to pay for it yourself or with the bank, and just go on,” he said.

Peter Spijkerman, a senior government official and the director of the National Coordinator for Groningen, estimated that as many as 23,000 buildings will need safety inspections. Of the first 200 homes that his agency checked in Loppersum, considered the center of the earthquake zone, 80 percent required demolition.

“I have been 30 years in public service, and I have never had such a big mandate to spend money,” Mr. Spijkerman said.

In the center of Loppersum, Mr. Spijkerman walked past entire streets of houses that had to be torn down or reinforced. In Appingedam, a community of 230 subsidized rental units is slated for demolition and due to be replaced with a new housing estate. A resident, Monique Annaars, 44, said some neighbors hoped for better housing while others were in a state of shock.

“Their lives feel like the earthquakes, a bit shaky,” she said.

The region has become a kind of case study for what happens to communities when an industry goes wrong. Two social psychologists, Katherine Stroebe and Tom Postmes of the University of Groningen, have estimated that thousands of people are suffering stress-related health problems as they are forced to move, worry about safety or grind through the Dutch bureaucracy.

“We expect that a large group will experience lower quality of life and higher health care costs,” they said in a study published in 2018.

People who meet daily with homeowners say health and social stresses are likely to exact a steeper toll than the physical damage.

“We demolish not only their houses but also their lives,” said Judith Boeijink, a project manager for the national coordinator in Loppersum.

Stanley Reed has been writing from London for The Times since 2012 on energy, the environment and the Middle East. Prior to that he was London bureau chief for BusinessWeek magazine. @stanleyreed12 Facebook

SOURCE NYT’s article with many photographs 

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