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The rotten heart of the Dutch gas wars Ordinary citizens are being taken for fools

Protestors blockade the NAM Oil Company (Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Protestors blockade the NAM Oil Company (Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


September 20, 2022   4 mins

Nestled in the green countryside far from the power and bustle of The Hague sits a bright, pink farmhouse. This 157-year-old Grade-A-listed building in Drieborg is not allowed to be Barbie pink. Painting it was a protest, a sign that inside the walls of the Dutch province of Groningen — perched above Europe’s biggest gas field — all is not well.

“We did it out of despair,” says Annemarie Nijhoff, who lives there with her partner Boelo ten Have. “That’s why we painted the farmhouse pink. It has been in the family for generations, carefully maintained. But for the last 10 years, it has been cracking so fast that we cannot repair it. Every time we report damage, we are told we are outside the earthquake zone.

“We believe it is a result of mine-related damage. We can’t pull it down because it’s a national monument. So we are completely stuck.”

Theirs is a common tale. This northernmost Dutch province has seen more than a million reports of damage since 1986, due to decades of earthquakes caused by 60 years of gas exploitation. In the process of emptying fourth-fifths of a field that contained 2,800 billion cubic metres of gas, the Dutch state has earned the equivalent of €417 billion. Its partner the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM) — owned by Shell and ExxonMobil — has taken the equivalent of €64.7 billion, according to figures seen by the Financieele Dagblad.

But what is most shocking is what has gone on behind closed doors: a succession of secret deals and convenient political myopia that are slowly being exposed in a ground-shaking parliamentary enquiry being televised across the country.

When the gas field was discovered and the first well was drilled in 1959, it was a gift to the once Nazi-occupied and war-torn country. But as the decades wore on, alarming signals of seismic activity, earthquakes and damage to buildings were dismissed, belittled and ignored by central government, which needed both the gas and the cash from exports.

Slowly, inexorably, press coverage and public outrage started to swell until, in early 2021, parliament voted to install its ultimate weapon of scrutiny: an enquiry to examine politicians, oil and gas executives, mining experts, residents and even schoolchildren who found themselves living in temporary homes with earthquake-proofed beds, as their families fell apart.

Now in its fourth week of hearings, the enquiry has uncovered political ignorance, secret lobbying, and agreements with NAM to avoid reducing production to strictly necessary levels. It also exposed a brazen admission by the former finance minister that, especially after the financial crash, the Treasury couldn’t do without the gas cash. Even though earthquakes were worsening and by 2015 the high court ordered non-essential extraction to stop, it did not.

Today, as a result, at a moment of Europe-wide energy insecurity, much-needed Dutch gas is no longer a political option, even if up to 20% of the field is still there. Thanks to tin-eared politicians and slippery oil firms, we are as vulnerable as the rest of Europe. Indeed, a week after Liz Truss removed a ban on unconventional fracking for shale gas in the UK (which is prohibited in the Netherlands), the Dutch experience might be seen as a lesson for politicians to listen and tread carefully.

In the beginning, the gas was welcome. “Straight after the Second World War, industry and government worked very closely to rebuild the Netherlands and extracting the gas for the benefit of the people at that time was a good thing,” says Liesbeth van Tongeren, Green Left politician and former director of Greenpeace Nederlands, who campaigned as an MP to reduce gas extraction from Groningen. Rather than build a sovereign wealth fund like Norway, the gas boosted the annual budget for the state, especially in later years.

But then, in 1986, the earthquakes began to start. The worst didn’t take place until August 2012, in Huizinge: it measured 3.6 on the Richter scale, but because of its relatively shallow depth (compared to natural earthquakes), it caused extensive damage and a cataclysmic feeling of shock.

By 2013, Groningen province was campaigning for expert research into the risks and compensation for damage. Yet somehow, that same year, gas extraction rose from 27 billion cubic metres to almost 54 billion, with the NAM advocating for more. The years that followed involved high court rulings, political promises to “stop the gas tap” and three different bodies charged with compensating owners and strengthening buildings.

But on the ground, the tremors were trivialised, partly because nobody died or was seriously injured as a direct result. “The Hague had the feeling that this was very far away,” says Van Tongeren. “If anything like that earthquake had happened in Amsterdam, it would have been dealt with completely differently. It was easier to ignore.”

Fast forward to today, however, and pledges to stop extracting gas from the field remain unfulfilled. Like every country in Europe, the Netherlands is scrambling to create more processing facilities for Liquefied Natural Gas. Any political debate about increasing this year’s 2.8 billion cubic metres of gas is unlikely to go anywhere. The government is promising to close the Groningen field entirely in 2023 or 2024, but only “if the geopolitical situation makes it possible”.

Meanwhile, Groningers are left angry and bewildered. What they are hearing in the enquiry reaffirms their suspicions over the years, the sense of being taken for fools, and a justification for all of their mistrust. “Some people think it’s all very well to have a parliamentary enquiry but that it won’t solve today’s problem,” Coert Fossen, chair of the Groninger Bodem Beweging (Groningen Ground Movement), tells me.

Another reason for their frustration is the fact that many have had to fight for every euro of compensation. Another historic house in Groningen has just been painted protest pink, an estimated 13,000 homes are still unsafe, and tens of thousands of claims have been rejected.

Fabian Buiter, a financial controller from Beerta, probably heard the most outrageous excuse from the Instituut Mijnbouwschade Groningen (IMG) now handling claims. An inspector said splits in his bathroom tiles masking €30,000 of damage were due to poor quality fittings and the soap he used in the shower. He lives on the edge of the official “contour lines” and after a failed court case, paid for the damage himself. He might even laugh about the soap-dodgers, if the whole thing didn’t make him want to cry.

Small wonder, then, that these down-to-earth Groningers, who are more used to ploughing the fields and keeping themselves to themselves, have lost trust in their government. For them, the political damage is done; and even when the gas stops, the earthquakes will continue for decades.

Some in The Hague put their hope in a strong enquiry report next February, leading to the creation of an independent arbiter that can control and effectively regulate fossil fuel extraction in the future. Others believe the situation will help speed up a transition to renewable energy. The danger is that despite the efforts of earnest parliamentarians, this scandal, like all the others in The Hague, will soon be written up, written off, and a part of fading memory. But in this corner of the Netherlands, the aftershock will remain.


Senay Boztas is a journalist living in Amsterdam.


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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago

Those official “contour lines” are lines of measured seismic effect. If a property lies completely outside then there has been no seismic activity. It is not an outrageous excuse to say cracked tiles in a bathroom were not caused by seismic activity, it is objective fact.

The author neglects to mention what the “natural rate” of earthquakes might be. The Dutch have been measuring seismic activity for more than 100 years. The Netherlands – before gas extraction – experienced a >4 event once every decade and >3 once every 2 years, concentrated in the north and south. An event of 3.6 in Huizinge all the way back in 2012 is pretty unremarkable.

And what of that “shallow depth” 3.6 event? Anything less than 4 very rarely causes damage and the Richter scale quoted is independent of depth – it is purely a measurement of surface movement so it is irrelevant how deep the quake was for quakes in the range 0-7. (For completeness, Richter is less good at recording large events, 3.6 is small.)

I’m sure the writer is simply reporting what she has heard, but is it too much to ask for some incredulity?

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I think you mean credibility (believability) .
Credulity (gullibility) is what is exhibited in the article.
Important point you made about Richter and depth .

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 year ago

Haha, yes. I was aiming for incredulity, not believing everything you are told. Properly edited thanks to you.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nell Clover
Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Skepticism might have been a better choice.

Last edited 1 year ago by Wim de Vriend
Helen Murray
Helen Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I presume you are a geologist specialising in earthquakes to make such bold assertions on the nature of earth quakes. If not then we cannot take your word for what you say on them and their effects on buildings etc.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Helen Murray

The Richter Scale is quite accessible. You do not have to be a specialist to understand it.
The assertion that the earthquake was a 3.6 is in the article above, which describes as the worst ever experienced in the Groningen area.
The assertion that 3.6 is minor is in this Wiki article: 3.0-3.9 Minor. Often felt by people, but very rarely causes damage. Shaking of indoor objects can be noticeable
Link:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richter_magnitude_scale#Richter_magnitudes

Last edited 1 year ago by Brendan O'Leary
Chris England
Chris England
1 year ago

Wiki isn’t really a go to for detailed science.

Brown Lyn
Brown Lyn
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

The modern “Richter’ scale is not a measure of surface waves but energy released at the source of slippage. Hence depth is critical to the amount of damage done as damage falls off with the square of distance from the slippage. (One one is 10 times the distance of the size of the slippage zone.).So you might want to consider your “incredulity”.

Chris England
Chris England
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I’m not sure you demonstrate much, or any, practical knowledge.

Your first paragraph is completely incorrect. The fact is that contours are a guide. The ground is not a homogeneous lump and energy will follow a path of least resistance so it is well known that tremors can extend in irregular patterns- and I have direct experience of this. For a design guide the contour would be a statistical outer bound, but I don’t think that would apply here.

Your second paragraph makes no sense – random statistics rarely do without the full context.

The Richter scale is an unreliable guide as you have noted, however your third paragraph is also completely wrong. It is known that “shallow” energy release causes substantially more structural damage due to horizontal motion. Deeper events cause vertical movement but less structural damage. It is also very dependent on the local geology. Geologically these events are very shallow.

I don’t profess by any means to be an expert but spent 5 years of my life living in an earthquake zone learning under the leading authority on structural design at the time.

Wim Blanken
Wim Blanken
1 year ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

We have a saying here in the Netherlands. I believe in English it is: “By now, many of them have heard the clock ticking, but are not sure when midnight will strike”. The situation of the induced earthquakes in Groningen is different from normal natural quakes. In fact they are shallow (3 km). Some quakes even were triggered above the salt layer (1 km). Richter only provides the ammount of energy released. Induced quakes cannot be compared to Tectonic quakes based on Richter. Especially in Groningen were the soil is mostly clay and peat with some sandfilled old streams in between. In the seismic field we use Mercalli scale for real damage of a quake at the surface. It is mostly based on people filling in forms. The government in the Netherlands was reluctant to use Mercalli. Now we have PGA as the main factor for paying damages. The government made a model based on PGA but that model does not take into account the differences on a small scale of the geological situation in a site. We are still struggling at court to get our damages paid so it is clear that Groningen does not want more quakes due to more extraction of gas. Groningen is a slow motion disaster and everyone saying it is not does not now the real situation. I lived here all my life and hope to live here safe and happily the coming decades.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

In Britain we have 3.6 earthquakes every few years. The effect is said to be like a heavy lorry driving past the road outside your house.

If it is that or ÂŁ5k a year on fuel bills, I suspect people will take the occasional tremor.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

We haven’t had a decent earthquake since 1884. That one measured 4.6 on the Richter scale, possibly killed one child and caused the collapse of a couple of church towers. Hardly San Francisco then.

Gary Cole
Gary Cole
1 year ago

Quite a few regularly in the Midlands – including a 4.8 only 14 years ago – and another 4.8 20 years ago:
https://earthquaketrack.com/gb-eng-dudley/biggest

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Gary Cole

We had one in Shropshire sometime in the eighties. I was sitting in my car in the carpark waiting for the office to open. It felt like someone had pushed down hard on the boot and the car bounced around on the suspension for a few seconds.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Gary Cole

Thank you, any substantial damage?

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

I found this
https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/nostalgia/2022/03/28/flashback-to-1990-when-the-earth-shook-and-a-town-trembled/
The one I remembered was 1984 but according to the news item there was another one in 1990 which I don’t remember. I remember there was a lot of excitement in the newspapers and radio. Also lots of lame jokes along the lines of “Did the earth move for you?”

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Many thanks!

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
1 year ago

Hardly “earthquakes”! A few cracked buildings is a price worth paying for energy security. Better that than old people freezing to death in the winter.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

13,000 houses, average cost of underpinning for earthquake protection say ÂŁ30k maximum = about ÂŁ400 million.

Are the Dutch stupid? Closing a field that generates hundreds of billions in revenue for these cheap remedial measures? Oh and new housing should be designed to be earthquake proof – that adds a small new build cost.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Actually the Dutch Government is stupid, along with most governments. It is almost insane to refuse to fund compensation when critical policies are at stake – not just gas extraction but other kinds of land development or even vaccination. The problem is that most government are petrified about establishing the principle that losers must be compensated and even when they accept it they are foolishly parsimonious. In the short run they save money, but the long run damage is enormous due to resistance to all kinds of development or potentially good changes in policy. One symptom of this is a bureaucratic mentality that the state (or its organs) can do what it likes if this is justified in some way as being for the greater good. Consider the whole fuss in the Netherlands about restrictions on nitrogen use by farmers.
The other problem apparent in this case is making any compensation subject to rigid bureaucratic rules such as seismicity contours. Veering on the side of generosity is sensible in the longer term. But, even more, it is critical to have an appeals mechanism at low cost to appellants but giving them a chance to submit evidence. This is what I mean by foolish parsimony as illustrated by the classic dictum “don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’th of tar”. Of course there will be fraudulent or mistaken claims but it is not possible to found serious political resistance on such cases alone.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Hughes

That’s what I meant to say!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Hughes

Penny-wise and pound-foolish, yes?

Laura Pritchard
Laura Pritchard
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

This was my thought.

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
1 year ago

Every new industry that has environmental impacts will create winners and losers. Serious moral and eventually legal problems will arise unless the losers are promptly and fairly compensated. If the industry can’t or won’t provide the compensation the responsibility falls on government.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Roman

Gas in Frisia is not a new industry and plenty money and compensation has been handed out. The article is using disputes about some of the compensation arrangements as a platform for wider allegations about the industry in general.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Last I heard , for all drilling and mining in Groningen and Frisia, activities must stop if subsidence reaches 6cm.
You can see the markers on many houses that have cracked brickwork going back years. It is a known environmental factor and is subject to constant management. I have no doubt that gas extraction (and salt and magnesium mining that is also carried out in this area) contributes but it is subject to strict controls, contrary to the implications in this article.
This has been the case for many years as the ground there is notoriously spongy and porous and also has natural gas seeps.
People still build there and move there because it’s economically successful and contributes much ti Netherlands economy and life.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brendan O'Leary
Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago

Geologically speaking, the entire country of The Netherlands is one great big mudflat. It is to be expected that some ground subsidence will occur, and brick walls are ubiquitous, heavy, and easily damaged as a result. I see cracked masonry in the minority of houses built of brick instead of wood here, in the western valley of Oregon. Wood-frame houses make up the majority, and they are a lot more resilient. The same thing has been observed in earthquake-prone Japan. And have you noticed that earthquakes in countries that have only stone buildings are always catastrophic?

Last edited 1 year ago by Wim de Vriend
Patrick Heren
Patrick Heren
1 year ago

What this article doesn’t say – perhaps the author doesn’t know, or simply doesn’t care – is that the real value of the Groningen field has always been its enormous flexibility. It provided the Netherlands, Belgium, western Germany and northern France with what the industry calls “swing” gas, supplies that ramped up in response to cold weather demand. For 5 decades it was the very basis of the NW European gas industry. Where long distance suppliers like Norway and Russia could only deliver gas at a fairly steady rate all year round, Groningen produced and supplied in response to short term demand, dictated largely by winter temperatures. In some years it produced 40 billion cu me, in others as much as 80. The alternative to swing gas is storage – lots of it. As we in the UK – historically the now largely defunct southern North Sea was Europe’s other big swing supplier – now realise, we don’t have enough of it. There is more storage on the continent, but not enough Russian gas to fill it ahead of winter, which we must all pray turns out to be a mild one.
Groningen still has the capacity to act as a strategic swing field, if the Dutch government would allow it to be. This is not to minimise the subsidence problems caused by extraction over the years. But we should all understand the other side of the coin – and the cost of shutting in such an enormous gas resource.

Last edited 1 year ago by Patrick Heren
Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

The bias in this article is clear from the early reference to “slippery oil firms” closely followed by the allegation that Liz Truss has lifted a ban on “ unconventional” fracking – whatever that is!
Sadly we repeatedly hear the case for the prosecution of the oil and gas industry and, only very rarely, that of the defence. This is just another example of that phenomenon . As such it must be treated with great reserve, if not discounted entirely.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

There is always corruption when there is a big compensation pot to distribute. Not only on the industry’s side. Unless you’re talking about the lawyers’ industry.

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
1 year ago

One might ponder an adaptation of a current common question: –

Does this article tell the truth? Or did she see it all on RT?

Others have pointed out that Richter 3.6 is a trivial tremor. Not something that any sensible geologist would describe as an “earthquake”.

At Richter 4.0, the normal level where quarrying, blasting, pile driving, proximity to heavy transport (a high speed train, perhaps) cause seismicity that most people will experience if awake, regulatory authorities usually start taking an interest.

A 4.0 tremor occurs quite often in the UK and regularly in the past when deep mining for coal. Subsidence levels in the Selby coalfield were restricted to 990mm. Not 6mm. This took careful planning and monitoring but when the mining was prematurely ended, any honest person would admit that the surface drainage over the whole area had benefitted by new carefully designed and constructed drainage and pumping systems paid for by coal. Buildings affected by subsidense (mainly in the tension zones at the edges of the long wall panels) were correctly repaired, almost always at the occupants’ entire satisfaction.

Most people thought it a reasonable trade for affordable and reliable energy.

But I must again point out that Richter is a logarithmic scale. Ed Davey’s 0.5 Richter seismic limit for fracking is 3,162 times WEAKER than Richter 4.0. So his frequent boast that he had stopped fracking (whilst trousering ÂŁ18,000 a year from a Solar “Energy” company) was factual. For which he already deserves severe punishment.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

Isn’t there a difference between older types of gas extraction which has been going on a very long time in places like the north sea and fracking? I have read that fracking is normally carried out at much lower depths than normal gas extraction and to carry low risk due to earthquakes.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Not that big a difference – fracking tight shale to extract gas and oil is at whatever reachable depth the tight shales are. Cuadrilla’s target shale in Lancashire is around 2700m deep.
The gas formations in Frisia are somewhat shallower and are not tight shale as far as I know. This student paper gives an idea of the geological and technical situation: https://www.1stsom.com/post/subsidence-groningen-and-the-future-for-gas-production-in-the-netherlands

Last edited 1 year ago by Brendan O'Leary
Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

Thanks for the link. Interesting to note that the paper describes the Netherlands as a naturally subsiding country.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

That is true. The geologists’ explanation I have seen says that the Netherlands and Scandinavia are on the same tectonic plate; its northern part including Norway and Sweden has been rising (or rebounding) due to the melting of the Ice Age glaciers on those mountains, so the Dutch at the other end are sinking as part of a teeter-totter mechanism.

Gary Cole
Gary Cole
1 year ago

The author doesn’t say how big the cracks are, how many there are and their nature, A house of that age you’d expect new cracks regularly as they move continuously. This is a useful guide – up to 5mm are regarded as ‘aesthetic issues’ only:
https://bregroup.com/insights/assessing-cracks-in-houses/?fbclid=IwAR2g_Li6C4bMdLJ3ar8xQlQ0Dwny8YUkYmMhSSVMTkNszX5wEJdPGtFbqyA

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago

Funny how their own Royal Family is Neck Deep in Shell Oil. And when Willem Alexander was prince, he said he was going to be the “prince of water.”