Groningers Struggle as Dutch Gas Debate Flares Up

A community at risk of catastrophe argues endangering its residents does nothing to stop Putin's war in Ukraine

Groningers Struggle as Dutch Gas Debate Flares Up
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

In Groningen in the northernmost tip of the Netherlands, a farmer by the name of Boelo ten Have inspects the latest attempt to protect his house from earthquake damage. A large wooden frame was built last July to stop his hallway from collapsing in on itself. “Look,” he says, as he shoves his hand into a huge crack in the wall. “And there, on the ceiling, do you see the cracks?” Throughout the years, as gas was extracted from the massive fields nearby, dozens of fractures and crevices formed throughout Ten Have’s 19th-century house. Each time the earth trembles from lowering groundwater, the building sinks further and more appear. “These are not issues citizens should be worried about,” he says softly, desperation in his voice. “I just want to live in a safe house. Is that too much to ask?”

Residents in this unassuming, deeply agricultural part of the Netherlands have found themselves in the political crosshairs of the biggest European crisis in decades. When Russia invaded Ukraine eight months ago, the Dutch government was in the midst of reducing gas from its Groningen fields because of widespread earthquake damage — a hard-earned victory for locals after years of campaigning and struggling.

But now there are growing calls from populist-leaning politicians to reopen the Groningen taps, arguing this will bring down soaring gas prices and weaken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist plans in Ukraine.

Even some traditional outlets in the Dutch media have shared proposals to reopen the Groningen fields. In early September, the Kremlin cut gas supplies to Europe in response to Western-imposed sanctions for invading Ukraine. Now, European governments are considering drastic measures to cut energy demand and consumption this winter to survive. The European Union has pledged to reduce gas usage by 15% between August and next spring. More investments will now be made to expand the use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy across the Netherlands. Communities such as Groningen’s are suddenly confronting new realities, from Germans begrudgingly bringing back dirty coal to Finland’s flirtation with nuclear energy.

Whenever the activist and communications adviser Annegreet Blanken sees a call on Twitter to reopen the Groningen taps, she replies with a simple sentence: “But it’s not safe.” Only when people then respond with friendly curiosity does she give them her expanded answer, saying that extracting more gas from Groningen will barely, if at all, influence gas prices. Besides, the soil is volatile and “even if citizens here are ‘generously compensated,’ as many people propose, gas extraction is just not safe,” she tells me in a cafe in the village of Middelstum, in the heart of the most earthquake-affected part of Groningen. For at least a decade, the talk of the town has centered on the extraction of gas, the tremors and the fear these instill.

Blanken and her brother, Wim, are trying to inform the public as best they can about the dangers of the gas fields, which she calls the “ATM of the Netherlands.” Along with other activists, the siblings have created a handful of detailed websites containing meticulous infographics and maps of the quakes. “We need to find ways to unite,” she says, adding that they want to hire a lobbyist to argue in The Hague against turning on the gas. They have also helped family members with their property damage cases in court. “You want to let it go, but you can’t, it consumes you,” says Wim. “I was at a birthday party [recently]. People talk about nothing else and they haven’t been talking about anything else for years. But I saw one man walk away silently. He just couldn’t bear it anymore.”

The anger and desperation stem from the government’s failure to properly compensate affected Groningers and fortify their homes. “We are living in a Kafkaesque nightmare that is actually real,” says Ten Have, pouring cups of coffee at his kitchen table in the hamlet of Drieborg, a stone’s throw from the German border. He describes how he has battled with authorities, mostly in vain, for over a decade to get his house repaired. “It has made me depressed. I can only function with [antidepressants]. My energy was depleted but we wanted to do one more thing to show our desperation,” he says, explaining how, in late August, he and his wife painted the house’s exterior bright pink in protest.

The color has no specific meaning but draws plenty of attention, in part because it is illegal to alter a building that has been designated a national monument. Ten Have’s ancestors built the house in 1865, and it now looks out onto farmland and gas installations in the distance. Within days, the villagers joined him in solidarity, hanging strings of pink flags outside their homes.

With 2,800 billion cubic meters (bcm) in reserve, the Groningen fields are among the largest in the world. Since their discovery in 1959 and extraction starting soon afterward in the early 1960s, the Netherlands has earned billions of dollars from the so-called Groningen’s gold, through the energy giants Shell and ExxonMobil. The money was crucial in rebuilding the Netherlands after World War II. Yet the citizens of Groningen have received little in return. In the 1990s, the earthquakes started, numbering in their hundreds. Ever since the largest tremor — in 2012, which had a magnitude of 3.6 and damaged hundreds of homes — people here fear for their lives. A bigger earthquake is expected, and people fear this time it could take lives.

Some Groningers call their region a “colony” — a sinister reference to the Netherlands’ exploitation of overseas colonies in the past. “You know what hurts me most … they refer to us as ‘those Groningers.’ Aren’t we Dutch?” says Peter Goossen, a man in his 50s who has known the Blanken siblings since childhood. “Aren’t we all in this together? Haven’t we given so incredibly much to this country?”

Since the first big earthquake in 2012, a labyrinth of commissions, institutions, working groups, dialogue tables and bureaus have been set up and closed, laying out and trying to implement an even less transparent maze of procedures, rules, frameworks, models and requirements that no Groninger can understand, let alone an outsider.

In 2016, the government started looking into earthquake damage — an ongoing process — designating almost 30,000 houses as “possibly unsafe.” These properties now have to be examined to determine the actual risk. So far, only around 4,000 have been checked, with deeply worrying results: Around 80% to 90% were deemed unsafe. “Calculation models have since changed to decrease that percentage but, still, around half of the houses that have been examined remain unsafe,” says Susan Top, who was the secretary for a group of civil society organizations speaking up for earthquake-affected Groningers. She quit her job last year out of frustration after running into a series of dead ends. “There is a lot of randomness,” she says, adding that the models changed in the spring of 2021.

The calculation models are based on the government’s decision to keep a relatively small, steady extraction of 4 bcm a year until closure — considerably down from the 54 bcm extracted in 2013. After at least a decade of protests and the publication of one report after another concluding that more gas extraction would be unsafe, the Dutch government decided in 2018 to close the taps by 2024 at the latest.

If that changes, the whole circus of inspections and calculations will have to start again, at a pace defined by a slow bureaucracy using up much of the available funds.

Groningen’s gas is in any case unlikely to affect Russian calculations one way or another. “If opening the tap would mean giving Putin the final blow, it would be another story, but that’s of course not the case,” says Top. Gas prices cannot easily be controlled by adding more or less to the market. The question remains as to whether alternative energy sources — including hydro, nuclear and liquefied natural gas imports from the United States — will be able to fill the European gap left by Russian cuts.

Besides, if gas extraction at Groningen is not kept constant and output increases or decreases according to political circumstance or perceived need, the ground will become even more unstable, with increased seismic activity.

The government’s mining body has said there is no way to predict the severity of future earthquakes. Those with a magnitude of less than 4 may seem light compared to the 7.8 magnitude quake that hit Nepal in 2015 or the devastation last June from a 6.2 magnitude quake in Afghanistan; both killed thousands of people. But the earthquakes in Groningen are unusual, taking place close to the earth’s surface — only some 1.8 miles below — and often in ground made of soft clay and peat, intensifying the effect and prolonging the instability of the soil.

During Dutch parliamentary hearings about gas extractions that began in late June, in which former and current officials, activists, citizens and experts were questioned under oath, the answer to the question of why Groningers have been let down by the state boiled down to one answer: money that went into the pockets of energy companies and the government. It was “because of the benefits,” says Jos de Groot, who oversaw gas extraction decisions as energy market director of the Ministry of Economic Affairs between 2006 and 2014.

The residents of Groningen do not see this money. In the nearby village of Loppersum, Annemarie and Ger Warink have moved to temporary accommodation down the road while their house gets fortified. The shop owned by Ger, where he sells musical instruments and sound equipment, may not survive. He has already had to downsize once, losing valuable display space. He has developed a heart arrhythmia that his cardiologist attributes to stress.

The war in Ukraine has pushed Ger to question the interruption to their lives and damage to their homes. “People are dying in Ukraine and I have cracks in my walls, so who am I to say that gas can’t be extracted here?” he asks. “But opening the taps won’t help Ukraine.”

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