How aid for Groningen was delayed by a money discussion in The Hague 06:55 in Binnenland , Politics There would be so much savings that it would be cheaper to turn off the gas tap than to continue to extract gas, ministers were told.

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Wopke Hoekstra, then Minister of Finance, and Eric Wiebes, then Minister of Economic Affairs (photo from 2020)
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  • John Jonker

    political reporter

Money always trumped the interests of the people of Groningen, concluded the parliamentary committee of inquiry into gas extraction in Groningen at the end of February. The House of Representatives is debating it today, just like yesterday. The NOS lists how even in the decision to turn off the gas tap, it played a role that the cabinet wanted to cut back on aid to Groningen.

The argument that at the same time significant cuts could be made on the reinforcement of Groningen houses was used to convince Prime Minister Rutte and Minister Hoekstra, among others, that the gas tap could be closed. According to the committee’s report, so much could be saved that it would be cheaper to turn off the gas tap than to continue to extract gas, ministers were told.

It now appears that the government’s attitude has unnecessarily delayed the reinforcement. Because many houses still had to be reinforced, despite the fact that the gas tap was turned off. Due to all the uncertainty from the cabinet about how and whether the reinforcement would continue, contractors, for example, dropped out.

How could that decision be taken and how did the leading players in The Hague also push for austerity at the time?

Lobby

At the start of Eric Wiebes’ ministry of Economic Affairs, at the end of 2017, the oil companies active in Groningen are lobbying him. They plant an idea: if the gas tap is turned off, the reinforcement operation can be cut back. An operation that also costs the oil companies a lot of money.

The idea remains with the ministry for some time. When the question arises in 2018 as to whether the cabinet wants to reduce gas extraction to 12 billion cubic meters per year for safety reasons, it will make Wiebes think.

Wiebes knows that he cannot have those 12 billion cubic meters of gas per year extracted from the ground forever. The extraction must be further reduced in the long term for safety reasons. The VVD member also knows that even when 12 billion cubic meters are drilled, billions of euros still have to be spent on strengthening houses.

Isn’t the zero variant also just more financially attractive (unless you keep winning 12 for a long time)?

Eric Wiebes in an email from his time as Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate

Wiebes then suggests bringing gas extraction to zero quickly: the zero variant. He did that for the safety of Groningen residents, he says. Money is also an argument behind the scenes, if only to convince the other ministers to bring gas extraction to zero.

Wiebes e-mails a self-made calculation to a civil servant about the benefits of gas extraction and the costs of reinforcement and concludes with: “Isn’t the zero variant also just financially more attractive (unless you continue to extract 12 for a very long time)?” Wiebes insists on working it out and he comes up with a proposal.

When Wiebes’ proposal to go to zero is discussed between ministries, it appears that the Prime Minister and Wopke Hoekstra, then Minister of Finance, have reservations. An official writes about this: “Rutte and FIN have opposed Wiebes’ intention to reduce the pace to zero.”

In this video we explain how a billion-dollar treasure underground became a curse for many Groningen residents:

Groningen gas: a billion-dollar treasure that became a curse for many Groningen residents

Hoekstra appears in a discussion to find it a “worst case scenario” if the gas tap is turned off soon and 10 billion euros still have to be spent on reinforcement. He asks for certainties about whether it is really possible to cut costs. Otherwise there are high expenses, but no gas revenues.

Ministers Hoekstra and Wiebes sit together, come out and together convince the rest of the cabinet. They both want gas extraction to zero and are suddenly in a hurry to do so, according to documents. Because if they are quick, they can still prevent a final agreement that certain houses will be reinforced.

imaging

Other ministers fear that the image may be created that the gas tap is being turned off because of the cost savings on reinforcement. Wiebes tells them that he will not make the connection with the reinforcement operation in the letter to the House of Representatives. “Min EZK (Wiebes, ed.) states in the letter that safety comes first and therefore explicitly does not make any link with the reinforcement task”, officials write about Wiebes’ reassurance to his colleagues.

Minister Wiebes and Prime Minister Rutte (2019)

If it is then discussed in the Council of Ministers, all ministers will be shown a table stating that it will even be cheaper for the state treasury in the coming years to turn off the gas tap than to continue drilling.

Although there are already official reservations about this calculation, the ministers are therefore told that so much can really be cut on the reinforcement. In short, the other ministers need not fear that their ministry will have to cut back due to a money shortage, as they previously feared. They agree to the plan.

Tap the fingers

Hoekstra receives a subtle slap on the wrist afterwards from the committee of inquiry about what he has stated about that period. In the interrogation for the parliamentary inquiry, Hoekstra says that the decision in the Council of Ministers was “purely about the tap”.

But the committee finds in the documents that Hoekstra has not been completely open and judges: “Minister Hoekstra indicates during his public interrogation that the Council of Ministers is only discussing the decision on terminating gas extraction. What he does not mention, however, is that the lower reinforcement costs do play an important role in the substantiation towards other ministries and ministers.”

Would gas extraction also have been phased out so quickly if Wiebes had not outlined these financial pictures that were too rosy for the state treasury? We do not know whether that decision was also favorable for the safety of Groningen. The fact is that the austerity story was considered necessary to convince ministers. And the argument worked: it became a stepping stone to the pause of the reinforcement operation; it was again held up to the light. They still notice the delay that this caused in Groningen.

  • Room behind many conclusions Groningen committee; strong criticism of Rutte
  • Groningen wants at least 30 billion euros due to ‘debt of honor’ gas extraction
  • Damaged Groningen awaits the results of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Gas Extraction
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    Groningen gas

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