The province of Groningen has the largest natural gas field in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. Discovered in 1959, it greatly contributed to the welfare of the Dutch state, becoming central to the energy supply in the Netherlands. Gas extraction in Groningen in total brought 363 billion euros to the Dutch national treasury. The extraction of natural gas in the Groningen area for several decades played a key role in the Netherlands’ energy supply. However, with time the downsides outweighed the benefits.
Three decades of earthquakes
Gas extraction led to subsidence and from the 1990s onwards was accompanied by earthquakes. The earthquake that occurred in Groningen in December 1991 had a magnitude of 2.4 on the Richter scale. These types of earthquakes are classified as minor and were only felt by some people, but do not cause damage to buildings. However, the earthquakes have become stronger over time. The Huizinge Earthquake in August 2012 had a magnitude of 3.6. At that time, the State Mining Authority predicted that future earthquakes in the area could become stronger, reaching up to 5 points on the Richter scale.
In response, the government started to limit gas extraction in Groningen from 2014 onwards. Four years later, when Henk Kamp was replaced by Eric Wiebes as the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate, the government decided that gas extraction in the Groningen field would stop in 2030 at the latest. These plans were later refined. Currently, the Groningen field is only used as a very last resort, for example, if the energy supply to households or hospitals is at risk. The government aims to definitively close the Groningen field in the autumn of 2023 or 2024 at the latest.
Groningers before gas
The end of the gas extraction is necessary not just for safety. The earthquakes not only severely damaged many buildings, but also caused a lot of stress and trauma for the residents of the affected areas. In theory, they were owed monetary compensation for the damage, but the government was slow in handling their claims and actually restoring their homes often turned out to be impossible. In February 2021, the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) installed a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the extraction of natural gas in Groningen to carry out an in-depth investigation into the decision-making process surrounding the extraction of natural gas in the Groningen region, the earthquakes, the handling of damage claims and the reinforcement of houses in the area. Two years later, in February 2023, the committee presented its report titled Groningers before Gas. The main conclusion was that the interests of the people of Groningen have been structurally ignored during gas extraction in that province, which had disastrous consequences. ‘Redeeming the debt of honour starts with putting the interests of the people of Groningen first,’ said committee chair Tom van der Lee.
50 measures and compensation
On 25 April Prime Minister Mark Rutte and State Secretary for the Extractive Industries Hans Vijlbrief presented an extensive package of measures to compensate Groningen residents for years of earthquakes. Most importantly, over the next 30 years, the government will allocate 22 billion euros for the area of Groningen and northern Drenthe. The government formulated 50 measures that focus on four main areas: damage control, recovery and sustainability, social and mental well-being, and economic perspective. Some of the measures also aim to strengthen the government’s service to society.
From now on, damage up to 40,000 euros will be reimbursed without having to prove that it was cause by gas extraction. The government also expands the area where people do not have to demonstrate that earthquake damage was caused by gas extraction. Across 30 years the government will also try to bring employment and school dropout rates in the earthquake areas to the national average. More attention will be paid to mental and social recovery. For example, earthquake coaches will be available for the residents in all municipalities in the area affected by gas extraction.
The government also wants to strengthen the long-term economic perspective for the affected regions. This, among other actions, will involve investing in hydrogen and offshore wind farms.
Written by Zuzanna Kuffel