A march against Shell and Exxon’s gas drilling drew thousands in the northern Dutch city of Groningen on Jan. 19, after a heavy earthquake rocked the region earlier this month.
Ten thousand people — a record number for Groningen — marched through the city with torches and chanted slogans scolding the government, as well as its partners Shell and Exxon, for the gas operations they say are responsible for the 3.4 magnitude earthquake felt throughout the province on Jan. 8.
Seismic activity has been recurrent in Groningen since the late 1980s in what scientific experts and numerous reports have long confirmed to be a direct repercussion of drilling in Europe’s largest gas field. But not since a heavy quake in 2012 — after which the Dutch government was forced to halve its gas production — has the magnitude been this intense. Up to 3,000 people reported cases of damage as a result of the earthquake this month.
“No one saw this coming. We thought they [Shell and Exxon] had this under control, that they were extracting in such a way to produce less quakes,” said Jelle van der Knoop, the co-founder and chairperson of the Groninger Bodem Beweging, the leading organization resisting gas production in the province. “But then this quake came and reminded people this is not the case; it can get worse. Everyone is really fed up with it now. We are pissed off and ready for action.”
With public opinion and mainstream media swaying in favor of the plight of Groningers, the pressure has mounted on the liberal conservative government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to take tough measures regarding its gas production.
After a long controversial delay, the Minister of Economy and Climate Eric Wiebes finally released a public letter on Jan. 23 stating that gas production in Groningen must come to a halt by 2022. “For me, the starting point here is that this phasing out is inescapable,” Wiebes wrote, “but the way in which this can best be worked out can vary per company.”
This sounds like political spin to many anti-extractivism activists, who are demanding concrete plans — including compensation for economic and emotional damages due to seismic activity — and an immediate closure of the gas tap.
The sense of collective anger emanating from the northern Netherlands is steeped in a longer conflict-ridden relationship with the Dutch government, which has earned a reputation among the local population for prioritizing gas money over their safety.
Since natural gas extraction began in the 1960s, the state’s income has become hugely dependent on gas revenues. In partnership with Shell and Exxon — which are in charge of the gas production via a company called Nederlandse Aardgas Maatschappij, or NAM — 90 percent of the revenues have been flowing to the Dutch state in the form of taxes, royalties and dividends.
This has allowed the Netherlands to build a relatively lavish welfare apparatus for itself, as well as a powerful geopolitical position in the European Union as one of its main gas suppliers.
But this has come at the expense of local communities. There have been over a thousand recorded earthquakes since the 1990s. While the causal link between gas drilling and earthquakes was obvious to local residents and scientific experts early on, this was steadfastly denied by both the government and NAM. An investigative report from the Dutch Safety Board incriminated both parties for outright ignoring the safety of citizens in their decision-making and planning between 1959 and 2003.
“You can extract gas all you want, but everything has its price, and this is in large part paid by Groningen. That whole province is shattered,” said Jorien de Lege, campaign leader at Milieu Defensie, which co-organized Friday’s march and has been a frontline defender in the Groningen anti-gas struggle. “A lot of money has been made from it, but no one thought about investing it into dismantling the system so that people in Groningen can live safely and we can transition to clean energy.”
It wasn’t until 2015 that Shell and Exxon publicly admitted fault for the damages caused by earthquakes after a Dutch court ruled in favor of 900 homeowners who filed a lawsuit to compensate for the drop in value of their real estate.
Meanwhile, compensation for specific damage has been dealt with on a case-to-case basis with NAM. In 2016, the company received 75,000 damage complaints and spent over $1 billion in compensation. This process, however, has proved to be a slow and arduous struggle. According to a report in the Guardian, NAM often denies the cause of damage, and puts the onus of proof on the plaintiff. It then negotiates the price down as much as possible in a strategic move to tire people out.
A new protocol that specifies when people are eligible for indemnities has been suspended since March, after local groups protested the questionable involvement of NAM in deciding when there is cause for compensation. In response, organized Groningen residents have drafted their own protocol, but the government has so far ignored it, leaving people unable to repair their own homes.
“Gas extraction clearly has its risk,” Van der Knoop said. “But apparently the only ones that can do something about it are the people, because the government is earning money by sacrificing its own people, as is Shell and Exxon, so it’s going to have to be the people themselves who will have to stop this.”