Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte was called on to resign during a heated parliamentary debate that heard allegations that his government went ahead with gas extraction in the north of the country despite knowing that earthquakes were likely to result.
At 2.8 billion cubic metres, the Groningen gasfield is the largest in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. But the scale and frequency of earthquakes in the region are forcing the Dutch to shut it down completely by October 1st, despite pressure on European Union gas supplies due to the war in Ukraine.
Only as “a last resort” would the field by kept open for one additional year, according to mining minister Hans Vijlbrief. That would happen, he said, only if supplies of gas to Dutch households ran out, perhaps after a particularly severe winter which exhausted all other European options.
The Groningen field was discovered in 1959. Production began in 1963, managed by NAM, a joint venture between Shell and Exxon Mobil. It has generated €363 billion for the exchequer over 60 years.
But the minister said the end was in sight. “It’s very simple. Everyone who has knowledge of earthquake danger tells me its really very dangerous to keep producing here. I’m convinced it’s wise to close it down.”
The gas extraction is believed to have led to subsidence which, from 1986 onwards, also led to what are known as “induced earthquakes”.
About 1,600 earthquakes have hit the region since then, damaging some 85,000 buildings, many of them private homes that householders have had to abandon, and a large number of which still haven’t been made safe.
The worst earthquake was in 2018 when a tremor measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale struck the small town of Huizinge, in Groningen province, and could be felt at least 10km away.
As of December 31st there was a total of 267,466 legal claims for damage.
The government has promised to spend €22 billion over the next 30 years as a “debt of honour” – although it has been slated for persistent and unnecessary delays.
Protesters from Groningen gathered outside parliament, rejecting Mr Rutte’s contention that he did not know the full scale of the problem until 2018.
“You lied and trampled the rights of the people of Groningen underfoot back then and it still continues”, Labour MP Henk Nijboer told Mr Rutte.
“Why won’t you take responsibility for what happened,” Socialist MP Sandra Beckerman asked him, adding: “Why don’t you resign?”
Despite scathing criticism, Mr Rutte survived a confidence motion. In retrospect, he said, he should have intervened sooner. His absolute conviction now was to be “part of the way forward”.