Oil companies pressured Cabinet, disputed SoDM advice on Groningen gas
Oil companies had a significant influence on the government’s decision to let gas extraction continue in 2013, a year after a particularly large earthquake near the town of Huizinge. The details of their strategizing appear in confidential meeting minutes of the Groningen Partnership, according to the NRC.
In the Groningen Partnership, a government representative from the Ministry of Economic Affairs works with top oil companies like Shell, ExxonMobil, NAM and state-owned EBN to decide Groningen’s gas extraction strategy. After the 2012 earthquake near Huizinge, the partnership met frequently to decide how to deal with the State Supervision of Mines’ (SoDM) forthcoming recommendations that gas extraction be slowed.
The SoDM warned that if gas extraction continued at full force, even more earthquakes would follow. These earthquakes could also be heavier than 3.9 on the Richter scale, according to the state supervision. NAM rejected the analysis, saying there was no evidence more extraction would cause more earthquakes.
According to the meeting minutes, the oil companies soon began discussing damage control.
Before the SoDM advice was even published, NAM was already “working on media training, whereby agreements are also made about the words to be chosen,” said then-director Bart van de Leemput. Dick Benschop, then-CEO of Shell Netherlands, said it was “important that the image is not created that the risk has suddenly increased.”
The companies also urged a top official to explain their concerns alongside the SoDM’s conclusions to Minister Henk Kamp (Economic Affairs). The official refused, saying he could not influence SoDM reports.
As the report’s publish date drew nearer, the oil companies hoped the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) or the KNMI would refute the state supervision’s findings. Instead, the KNMI endorsed the advice.
Benschop then asked the top official, who had shared the SoDM’s advice with Minister Kamp, if it were possible for Kamp not to inform the Tweede Kamer of the advice. “The minister cannot leave a received report for weeks,” came the reply.
But in the end, Kamp wrote to the Tweede Kamer that he would not accept the SoDM’s advice. Benschop expressed “his special appreciation for the action of [the director-general] and the other parties involved from the ministry, which, despite the advice of State Supervision, has led to the position now chosen by the Minister,” according to the meeting minutes.
NAM went on to extract a record amount of natural gas from Groningen in 2013. This was due to cold weather, but also “because of attractive commercial opportunities,” the NRC reports.
Most recently, in February 2022, the SoDM advised that gas extraction be “reduced to zero as quickly as possible” in Groningen. Despite the Cabinet’s promises to reduce gas extraction over the years, almost twice as much gas is expected to be extracted during this “gas year.”