Safety, Groningen earthquakes ignored for decades: Safety Board

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Gas extraction in Groningen failed to adequately consider the safety of the province’s residents up until 2013, a report released on Wednesday by the Dutch Safety Board (OVV) says.

The issues largely concern risks caused by local earthquakes, which since 1993 have been correlated to natural gas extracted from beneath the northern Dutch province. According to the report, the commodity was given priority – with emphasis on maximum yields, optimizing Dutch mineral resources and sustaining supplies – not on people’s safety or security.

Instead, the ministry charged with oversight of the gas collection and others involved deliberately whitewashed the situation, choosing to mislead residents and allay fears instead of acknowledging the real problems caused by the removal of natural gas from the earth, the report says.

Meanwhile, discontent has grown among inhabitants of the gas field, which is near the municipality of Slochteren. Unequal income distribution, inadequate handling of claims and poor communication have greatly contributed to the mistrust and increased feelings of insecurity among the people.

To arrive at their conclusions, the safety board, or Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid, studied the period of 1959, when the Groningen gas field was first discovered, to January 2014, when Dutch economics affairs minister Henk Kamp (VVD) presented a package of measures. The research shows that earthquake safety had no influence on decision-making about gas extraction. The Maatschap Groningen and the parties involved in gas production – the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), the State Supervision of Mines (SSM), the Energiebeheer Nederland (EBN), Shell, ExxonMobil and GasTerra – together formed a tight alliance, focused on consensus and collaborated for years with mutual understanding of each other’s interests.

Kamp is in the same political party as Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He has been the economic affairs minister since 2012.

As the only government player involved in the gas extraction, the Ministry of Economic Affairs was responsible for defending all public interests. The ministry, however, was so enmeshed in the alliance that concerns for civil security took a backseat, says the report. The OVV concludes the system had no space for critical voices or counter pressure, even from other ministries or the outside world. Over two decades ago, when a correlation was first found between earthquakes and gas production, the involved parties did not believe that the reported numbers or magnitudes consisted grounds for concern. The NAM, the minister of economic affairs and the supervising authority subsequently delivered reassuring messages.

The report concludes that parties engaged in ground-boring activities – and all the related uncertain risks – should be taken as the starting point for such activities. For gas extraction in Groningen, the OVV recommends that all involved parties deepen their understanding of what is at stake and improve communication with residents.