As earth trembles again, Fryslân and Groningen protest against gas extraction

Thousands are seeking compensation over damages to houses · Sinking of land is a cause of concern · Nationalia speaks to Frisian National Party representative on current issues and future challenges

Wilderwank well, at the Groningen gas field.
Wilderwank well, at the Groningen gas field. Author: Skitterphoto
Alarms sounded yet once more in the north of the Netherlands earlier this year when earth trembled on 8 January at Zeerijp, in the province of Groningen. The magnitude of the earthquake was 3.4 on the Richter scale, the strongest one since in 2012 another one hit Huizinge, in the same province. It is now an established fact that ever growing earthquakes and land subsidence in an area that also includes neighbouring Fryslân are linked to gas and salt extraction that has been going on in the area for decades now. Parties and organizations of the two provinces are staging a protest on 24 February against gas sourcing and salt mining and to seek compensations.

Thousands of people are claiming that their houses got damaged by the earthquakes. Besides, stressed-linked health problems have also been reported, and people voice concerns over their own safety.

A Dutch judge ruled in 2015 that people with houses affected can seek compensations from NAM —the company owned by Shell and Exxon Mobil that has been operating the Groningen gas field, Europe’s largest, since 1963— for any drop in house prices due to the earthquakes. But hard-fought processes to claim compensations can take more than one decade in some cases, people affected complain of.

The Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs told last month some 200 big firms to switch towards alternative sources by 2022 in an effort to reduce Netherlands’ dependence on fossil fuels. Plans are also being made to cut production from the Groningen field at least by half. In fact, extraction has been already reduced since 2014, after years of official denial of the problems it was causing.

A succession of protests have been going on in Groningen in recent years, some of them demanding total cessation of output. That province is the most severely hit, but is not the only one: gas is also being extracted from smaller fields in neighbouring provinces, in some cases in areas where salt is or was also mined. One of the best known cases is that of the field between Harlingen and Franeker in Fryslân. It is now proved that extraction at that field is causing subsidence —that is, earth is slowly sinking from it previous level, some 33 centimetres in 2015. Local residents fear more problems might arise in the future as forecasts predict subsidence will increase up to 46 centimetres by 2050. This a major concern in an area, that of Fryslân and Groningen, that has most of its land below or a mere 1 metre above sea level.

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To have a deeper insight on a local view on such issues, Nationalia has spoken to Frisian National Party (FNP) political adviser Yde Dijkstra.

Nationalia: Why are the FNP and its sister party Groninger Belang staging a protest, 24 February, against gas extraction in the province of Groningen and the consequences it is having in both provinces?

Yde Dijkstra: Regional parties in Fryslân and Groningen show their solidarity uniting against the damaging gas and salt extraction in the northern Netherlands. Many decades of severe soil subsidence have caused the region to sink even further below sea level. Forced by recent earthquake calamities there seems to be an opportunity now to change things fundamentally.

The northern provinces of the Netherlands —Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe— are very rich in natural gas fields. The largest field is in Groningen, in fact this is one of the largest gas fields in the world. Gas has been extracted here since the early 1960s. In Fryslân and Drenthe, many smaller gas fields have been exploited since the 1980s mainly. In many cases there has been a considerable soil subsidence as a result. Varying from a few centimetres up to 40 or 60 centimetres and expected to continue still for many decades after exploitation has been terminated. In some places, there is also extensive deep salt mining causing still more subsidence. Especially in Fryslân and Groningen this poses a real danger as these areas are already below sea level behind artificial sea dikes.

In recent years the largest Groningen gas field has been suffering from recurring earthquakes caused by the extraction. This is damaging many thousands of houses and other buildings, resulting in even more legal issues between individual owners, mining companies and the national government. In the Netherlands, mining activities are exclusively governed by national law, the national government being able to overrule regional authorities.  Huge benefits from the gas extraction have been flowing in the national state budget since 1962. Most of this money has been spent on current affairs for the Dutch welfare state and part of it has been invested in infrastructure mainly in the densely populated western provinces. It has been calculated that of many tens of billions, the extraction areas in Groningen and Fryslân have received only 1% of the total benefits.

N: What is your party’s proposal on the issue? Should gas extraction be banned? What are the alternatives for energy production that you are proposing?

Y. D.: A statement has been adopted in the regional Parliament not only by FNP but by all parties including the regional branches of the national parties to ban all new gas exploration and exploitation. An energy strategy has been developed by the provincial executive that shows it is possible for the province to be energy-independent in 2050 without using fossil fuels. By investing heavily in energy savings in the next years it has been deemed possible to reduce consumption by 25%. In an intelligent energy mix geothermal heat, wind farms, biogas, hydrogen fuel and solar panels can generate the rest.

N: Your party is part of the current coalition executive in Fryslân. What is being done in order to approach those goals, and what have been the results so far?

Y. D.: For the FNP it is very important that the qualities of the Frisian landscape are preserved by not placing any solitary new wind turbines or even large scale wind farms on land. These should be situated at sea in our opinion. The ban on new wind turbines on land has been firmly encased in the current provincial regulations due to hard negotiations with other political parties in 2014.

The FNP as part of the current coalition executive in Fryslân has made sure that the regional government has formulated its position against new gas exploration and exploitation. This position brings the regional Frisian executive in a conflict situation with the national authorities with every new application by the mining companies. 

Only after recent heavy earthquakes causing great damage and posing a real danger to the inhabitants the termination of gas extraction has become a major issue in Dutch national politics. Forced by the recent events, in the last few weeks, the national minister for Economic Affairs has not only ordered a substantial reduction of gas production from the Groningen field, but also issued a ban on shale gas production by chemical fracking in the Netherlands.

N: Other problems relating to the extraction and management of natural resources have been arising in the last few years among other stateless peoples in Europe. Relevant examples are the popular protests after a series of earthquakes linked to the Castor storage gas facility off the coast of the Valencian Country and Catalonia, or also the movement against environmental destruction caused by lignite mining in Lusatia. Does your party think the whole issue should be addressed at the European level, and what the role of sub-state governments should be in that case?

Y. D.: There seems to be a tendency for regions with stateless peoples in Europe to be especially vulnerable with respect to damaging mining activities. These issues can and should be addressed in the European Parliament. It is part of the broader environmental issue in the European Union. For example we consider lignite mining in huge open pits no longer acceptable in view of the CO2 reduction goals that have been set internationally and even less because it has been destroying landscapes and communities for many decades.

As long as mining activities are viewed mainly from the national economic perspective though and are governed by national legal systems we see not many chances for improvement for the individual inhabitants of our regions. Sadly, change may only come from crisis situations like in the Groningen gas area today.

Sub-state authorities should have at least a shared authority over mining issues in their regions. They are best equipped to see what is in the best interest of the people to provide some weight against the purely economical. In the Netherlands, there exist only small advisory capabilities for the regions and municipalities. In view of recent events in Groningen, we think this is not adequate any longer. In fact the new Dutch minister of Economic Affairs has acknowledged this also by transferring a great deal of authority to a new regional body which must solve the damage and legal issues caused by the earthquakes in the Groningen area.

N: Besides this issue, and more broadly speaking, what is the FNP’s opinion on the current state of relations between Fryslân and the Dutch state as regards the powers enjoyed by the States of Fryslân and the Provincial Executive? Do you seek the devolution of further powers, and why?

Y. D.: The FNP seeks devolution of powers to the region as much as possible, but still in the state framework of the Netherlands. In the field of education in the Frisian language this goal has been partially reached by changing national law in recent years. In the field of mining activities though, the national government is still firmly in the seat, still playing ‘divide and conquer’ by treating the problems in the Groningen earthquake area differently from the other areas that are suffering from continued mining activities. 

The regionalist parties want to seize the momentum now to reach a fair and uniform settlement not only for the inhabitants who are threatened with the loss of their homes in the earthquake area in Groningen, but for all mining activities in the Netherlands including in Fryslân.