Green EU: The Massive Gas Field Nobody will Touch

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From Watts Up With That?

Essay by Eric Worrall

Fear of earthquakes is preventing Netherlands from pumping gas from a reservoir big enough to insulate Europe from the consequences of their green energy policy failure and Russian energy geopolitics.

The Massive Gas Field That Europe Can’t Use

Earthquake risks in the Netherlands have locals unwilling to plug the Russia-related energy shortfall.

By Cagan Koc and Diederik Baazil
6 October 2022 at 14:01 GMT+10

Beneath the windmill-dotted marshlands of the Netherlands lies Europe’s largest natural gas reserve. The sprawling Groningen field has enough untapped capacity to replace, as soon as this winter, much of the fuel Germany once imported from Russia.

Instead the field is in the process of shutting down, and the Netherlands is rebuffing calls to pump more, even as Europe braces for perhaps its toughest winter since World War II. The reason: Drilling has led to repeated earthquakes, and Dutch officials are loath to risk a backlash from residents by breaking promises.

Locals, though, say the continent needs to look elsewhere. Wilnur Hollaar, 50, who’s lived in Groningen for almost two decades, is still seething over the way officials ignored his concerns. “When I bought this house in 2004, it was a palace,” Hollaar says of his home, which was built in 1926 and features stained-glass windows and detailed stonework. But like thousands of homes in the area, it’s been damaged by quakes; it’s full of cracks and the facade is sinking. “My house has turned into a ruin,” he says.

European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a recent speech that the Netherlands should reconsider its decision to close Groningen, and Vijlbrief has been pressed by counterparts from other EU nations as well, but the country is holding the line for now. Prime Minister Mark Rutte won’t entirely rule out using Groningen to bolster supplies, but “only in an extreme case if everything goes wrong,” he says, and it isn’t needed right now.

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The Earthquake risk in this case appears to be real. Houses in the area being extracted have suffered 1.5ft of subsidence to date, caused by the land compacting into the depleted reservoir. The gas field is that big.

Induced Earthquakes from Long-Term Gas Extraction in Groningen, the Netherlands: Statistical Analysis and Prognosis for Acceptable-Risk Regulation

Charles Vlek

Recently, growing earthquake activity in the northeastern Netherlands has aroused con- siderable concern among the 600,000 provincial inhabitants.

There, at 3 km deep, the rich Groningen gas field extends over 900 km2 and still contains about 600 of the original 2,800 billion cubic meters (bcm). Particularly after 2001, earthquakes have increased in number, magnitude (M, on the logarithmic Richter scale), and damage to numerous buildings.

The man-made nature of extraction-induced earthquakes challenges static notions of risk, com- plicates formal risk assessment, and questions familiar conceptions of acceptable risk.

Here, a 26-year set of 294 earthquakes with & 1.5 is statistically analyzed in relation to increasing cumulative gas extraction since 1963.

Extrapolations from a fast-rising trend over 2001–2013 indicate that—under “business as usual”—around 2021 some 35 earthquakes with & 1.5 might occur annually, including four with M & 2.5 (ten-fold stronger), and one with & 3.5 every 2.5 years. Given this uneasy prospect, annual gas extraction has been reduced from 54 bcm in 2013 to 24 bcm in 2017.

This has significantly reduced earthquake activity, so far. However, when extraction is stabilized at 24 bcm per year for 2017–2021 (or 21.6 bcm, as judi- cially established in Nov. 2017), the annual number of earthquakes would gradually increase again, with an expected all-time maximum $ 4.5.

Further safety management may best fol- low distinct stages of seismic risk generation, with moderation of gas extraction and massive (but late and slow) building reinforcement as outstanding strategies.

Officially, “acceptable risk” is mainly approached by quantification of risk (e.g., of fatal building collapse) for test- ing against national safety standards, but actual (local) risk estimation remains problematic.

Additionally important are societal cost–benefit analysis, equity considerations, and precau- tionary restraint.

Socially and psychologically, deliberate attempts are made to improve risk communication, reduce public anxiety, and restore people’s confidence in responsible experts and policymakers.

The 900-km2 large Groningen gas field has been depleted from the original 2,800 bcm to less than 700 bcm by the end of 2016.

This went along with a reservoir pressure reduction of originally 350 bar to less than 100 bar in 50 years’ time.

Extensive gas extraction and the resulting reservoir compaction have caused almost 50 cm (1.5 ft) of soil subsidence and an increasing number of gradually more harmful earthquakes with & 1.5 to 3.6 after 1990 and so far up to 2014.1 

A critical double question for numerous Groningers and the national government in The Hague is: What seismic activity is likely to occur when substantial gas extraction would continue for the next several decades, and how would environmental safety be restored and upheld?

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I’m sympathetic to the residents, but the EU is in such a desperate situation, thanks to their green energy policy failures, I suspect the Netherlands government will have no choice but to cave and allow extraction to continue.