Hundreds of low-intensity earthquakes near the surface of a northern coastal region of the Netherlands have prompted the government to consider scaling back gas extraction, likely by several billion cubic meters a year.
Officials in The Hague face a dilemma: The earthquakes are clearly unacceptable, but the abundant gas field is also a source of cheap, locally produced energy for both the nation and its export partners. The economy minister’s provisional strategy is expected to be revealed this spring. A spokesman for the joint venture managing the field says it will abide by the ministry’s decisions. A definitive cabinet decision is expected by November.
After a 3.4-magnitude quake in January near the village of Zeerijp, Dutch economic minister Eric Wiebes vowed to slash natural gas production from the Groningen field from 21.6 billion cubic meters a year to 12 bcm, as was recommended by the state mining regulator. The Dutch State Supervision of Mines stated in February that a major intervention is needed to assure safety for citizens of Groningen, a city of 200,000.
The government is under public pressure to act. Last summer the courts at the Council of State heard a lawsuit calling for the gas fields to be closed. The court is demanding clarity from the economic ministry on risk assessment and safety for the Groningen field as well as a more solid plan for limiting gas demand. The ministry has until November to do so.
Hein Dek, a spokesman for the Royal Dutch Shell-ExxonMobil joint venture known as NAM that manages the field, says the operator always follows decisions by the economic ministry and would wait for further developments to comment.
The Groningen field is an extremely productive area for gas extraction. It is located about 3 kilometers underneath the northeast corner of Holland along the German border. Some 300 wells are spread over 17 production clusters in the area. Confirmed reserves would last 50 years, but extraction is triggering earthquakes.
Both NAM and the Dutch government accept the link. “A serious effort will be made in the years ahead to further reduce dependency on Groningen gas,” the economic ministry said in 2015, announcing an annual extraction cap of 27 bcm, which in subsequent years has been whittled down to the current 21.6 bcm.
Charles Vlek, a risk-decision psychologist at the University of Groningen, expects any reduction to take perhaps several years. “It depends on how quickly the government succeeds in decreasing both national and international demand for low-caloric Groningen gas,” Vlek says.
When the Groningen field was discovered in 1959, according to Dutch gas wholesaler GasTerra, all gas appliances in the Netherlands were made compatible with this cheaper form of energy.
Rumble in the Fields
The Groningen field also acts as a Western Europe counterweight to fossil fuel supplies from Russia. When Vlek moved from Leiden to Groningen 40 years ago, he had heard about seismic activity, but nothing like the moderate but numerous quakes now causing foundation cracks and safety risks in the region’s houses.
By the mid-1990s, however, seismic activity in the Groningen area was on the rise. Shell is expecting a multibillion-dollar bill to come from damage claims related to the earthquakes, CEO Ben van Beurden said during a recent earnings report conference call.
At first glance, the Groningen field quake cases appear to bear some similarity to complaints about U.S. hydraulic fracking. However, geologic conditions are different in Groningen, says Vlek. “It does seem rather different than extracting high-pressure natural gas from a soft, porous, 3-kilometer deep sandstone reservoir,” he says.
“Still, in 2013 the Dutch Dept. of Economic Affairs’ basic attitude seems to have been similar to the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s stand toward useful and profitable energy production,” he says.
However, increasing social pressure over housing damage—and what seismic data suggests is an increasingly unstable seismic region of the Netherlands—is changing all that.