An investigation by regional news organisations has revealed that as calls to reduce gas extraction in Groningen are increasing, smaller gas fields in the northeast of the Netherlands are being emptied more rapidly.
Omrop Fryslân, RTV Drenthe, RTV Noord and RTV Oost (in the province of Overijssel) evaluated the extraction plans for 15 smaller gas fields spread across the north. The regional broadcasters discovered a pattern of more gas being extracted at locations than was technically permitted, extracting more gas in a shortened period of time due to abbreviated operating times and resuming extraction at sites that had long been in disuse.
Following a 3.4 magnitude quake in early 2018, economics minister Eric Wiebes has made various calls over the past year for changing the protocol for recognising damage claims, refusing to grant new drilling permits, forcing companies that heavily rely on gas to switch to more sustainable sources and for gas extraction in Groningen to wind down as quickly as possible. At the same time, the ministry has continued to approve of extraction plans beyond the massive Slochteren field in Groningen, namely fracking in Pieterzijl and eleven smaller fields in Drenthe.
According to the reporting, there are 131 identified small gas fields in the three northern provinces: 68 in Friesland (of which 31 are in production), 33 in Groningen (19 in production), and 20 in Drenthe (14 in production). Small fields across the country account for around 30 percent of the natural gas used within the Netherlands, and reliance on the Drents, Fries and Overijssels fields is on the verge of overtaking production levels from the Groningen field for the first time in years.
Earlier this year, residents and local governments of several northern municipalities came together to formally object to the apparent strategy of switching production away from the Slochteren field and focusing on other sites in the region. As previously reported by the Northern Times, political parties and groups representing villages in the municipality of Smallingerland (Friesland) have teamed up to oppose more gas extraction, including fracking, and the municipality of Heerenveen is exploring legal options against beginning gas extraction in Langezwaag, which directly borders the 50,000 person city. Smallingerland (Friesland) also began exploring legal options to oppose gas extraction in 2017.
Despite protests from the Frisian municipalities of Heerenveen and Opsterland, Vermilion Energy, a Canadian company, was given the go-ahead to begin extraction from the small gas fields located within their borders. Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy Eric Wiebes approved of the operations in July of 2018, but earlier this month, the two Frisian municipalities sent two alderpeople to the Dutch parliament in The Hague to object to Wiebes’ decision.
On Friday, RTV Noord reported that the Dutch Public Prosecutor is conducting a criminal investigation into accelerated gas extraction at a time when operations are supposed to be tapering off. The focus of the investigation is potential violations of environmental permits: before gas can be extracted at a site, a production plan must be created and requires approval by the relevant ministry. However, figures from Vermilion at three gas fields show that production levels were three times higher than permitted.
Earthquakes have been recorded in Drenthe and Friesland near gas extraction sites over the years, albeit far fewer than in Groningen. Last July, a 2.0 magnitude quake struck near the town of Dalen, and RTV Drenthe reports that back in 1997, a 3.4 magnitude quake occurred near Roswinkel. The strongest recorded tremor in Friesland was a 2.8 quake in De Hoeve in 2009.
Additional reporting contributed by Thomas Ansell