The interests of the people of Groningen have been systematically ignored in gas extraction in their province. Earning money has always taken precedence over safety and the rest of the Netherlands has long lacked care and attention for the natural gas area.
This is what the parliamentary committee of inquiry on gas extraction Groningen writes in its final report Groningers above gas, which was presented in Zeerijp in Groningen by committee chairman Tom van der Lee to the chairman of the House of Representatives Vera Bergkamp. The highly critical piece of nearly 2,000 pages describes the course of events since gas extraction began in 1963 in the province.
The committee emphatically opts for the perspective of the victims. “Interests of Groningers structurally ignored in gas extraction”, is the main conclusion. In earlier debates about the many reports and advice that have already been published, “the moral perspective” has often been lacking and the committee states that the Netherlands has a debt of honor to the people of Groningen.
Unprecedented system failure
That conclusion has been drawn many times before; What is new is the comprehensive picture that the report presents of all abuses in gas extraction. Everything could have turned out differently, it says right at the beginning of the report, if the Groningen people had been listened to earlier. “Now gas extraction has resulted in an unprecedented systemic failure of both public and private parties who have failed in their duties.”
Successive ministers were not well informed about the dangers posed by gas extraction, and that also applied to the House of Representatives, which did not properly fulfill its role as a representative of the citizens’ interests.
The debate in the Chamber was not conducted on the right grounds, “a serious and culpable shortcoming”. The slow decision-making also stems from the fact that ministers “always realize too late what is going on”.
Problems long underestimated
Leading politicians, such as Prime Minister Rutte, have long underestimated the seriousness and urgency of the problems. When it became clear around 2018, Rutte did visit Groningen repeatedly and showed involvement, but to the frustration of the Groningen people nothing changed.
An important explanation for history is the way in which the Groningen gas field is exploited: by NAM, in what is now called a public-private partnership. From 1963, the State worked with oil giants Shell and Exxon Mobil in this so-called ‘silent partnership’.
It would turn out to be extremely profitable and because the State had the largest share in the proceeds, the whole of the Netherlands benefited from the sky-high revenues: since gas extraction started, 363 billion euros flowed into the treasury, 66 billion euros went to the shareholders of Shell and Exon as profit. Mobil (“the oils”). The benefits thus made a significant contribution to national prosperity, while the people of Groningen paid the price.
When the consequences of gas extraction became clearer than ever after the major earthquake near Huizinge in 2012, little changed at first. The production ceiling even went up the following year and extraction continued in the years that followed, putting the safety of the people of Groningen increasingly at risk.
‘Security of supply’ of the gas became the mantra used by the operators: it was paramount and the outside world was ‘deliberately’ kept ignorant. This was possible because not politicians, but civil servants cooperated with the oil companies on behalf of the State. The committee characterizes this cooperation as “a closed bulwark”: NAM’s knowledge monopoly and a lack of openness to critical opposition meant that extraction was not up for discussion until 2012. “Way too long.”
The safety was deliberately described very narrowly by politicians and the operators, the committee states, initially as ‘safety of employees’, and when more and more damage was caused by the earthquakes as safety of houses. “Other aspects of safety, such as residents feeling unsafe in their own home or dying prematurely due to the stress of claims handling, have not been factored into the safety definition in any way.”
Groningers systematically misunderstood
“The suffering of the residents has been systematically ignored”, the committee continues to write, and that amounts to ‘negligence towards the people of Groningen’. It is true that more and more rules and regulations were introduced, sometimes with good intentions, but the effect for the residents was counterproductive. Holes in the rules were closed with new rules, which solved the problem on paper, but trapped victims even more deeply in an even more complicated bureaucratic forest.
The lengthy claims processes cause so much worry and hassle for those involved that they lead to health problems. “Very bad”, the committee of inquiry judges. The central question of how the situation in Groningen could get so out of hand, and citizens left so distressingly out in the cold, is answered unequivocally: “the worlds of decision-makers on the one hand and residents on the other are strictly separated and completely different from each other”.
Of the more than 267,000 damage reports submitted in the natural gas area up to the end of last year, 230,000 have been dealt with. In 85,000 cases, more than one damage was involved and precisely that, the committee argues, is ‘critical’. The total number of earthquakes that hit Groningen is about 1600.
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