Dutch farmers protest fracking as govt set to cut gas output

Jo Biddle, Jan HENNOP
Farmers from Groningen ride tractors and carry banners during a demonstration against fracking at The Hague

The Dutch government Thursday appeared poised to meet demands to halve production at Europe's biggest gas field, as dozens of farmers mounted tractors to protest damaging earthquakes in the region.

Economics Minister Eric Wiebes said he wanted to cut output in the northern Groningen gas field "as soon as possible" to a new recommended level of 12 billion cubic metres.

But first he said he wanted to discuss the issue with neighbours France and Germany, hoping to make a decision next month.

Dozens of Groningen farmers meanwhile arrived in The Hague with their tractors to protest against fracking, as MPs debated the issue in parliament.

The drama came as the Dutch mine safety board urged the government Thursday to take drastic action, seeking to halt the earthquakes which have plagued the region for years.

"A major intervention is necessary in order to properly meet the safety standard and to reduce the risk of damage," the board said.

Although no-one can predict when earthquakes will happen in the northern region, "we advise the minister to reduce the gas production as soon as possible to a maximum production level of 12 billion cubic metres per annum."

This would be well below the current gas production of some 21.6 billion cubic metres, which was set in April 2017, and was already drastically scaled back from 53.9 billion cubic metres in 2013.

- 'Homes falling apart' -

Residents have increasingly called for all gas production to be halted in the region.

"All our homes are falling apart," Annemarie Heite, 47, told AFP as she joined other farmers with their tractors at a protest close to the parliament, adding the problem had been "ignored for the past five years by our government."

"These are man-made quakes and combined with the clay soil we have in Groningen everything is falling apart, our cultural heritage, our farms, our churches and eventually also the people."

The low magnitude earthquakes are said to result from huge air pockets left underground because of gas extraction.

But tempers rose after more than 900 homes were damaged in early January when Groningen province was hit by a 3.4-magnitude quake -- its largest since 2012.

"Farmers are usually not protesters. They stay at home. But if their businesses are being ruined, you go bankrupt," Harm Wiegersma, from the Dutch dairy farmers union, told AFP.

"This is a clear call for help from farmers," he added.

Gasunie, which transports gas in the Netherlands and northern Germany, said however such a radical cut in Groningen gas risked leaving homes without heating next winter.

Inspector General of Mines, Theodor Kockelkoren, admitted there were "large uncertainties" in the latest assessment.

"We therefore choose to be on the conservative side. After all, it concerns the safety of the inhabitants of Groningen," he added.

NAM, the energy company responsible for the gas extraction, is half-owned by Shell and ExxonMobil and has been extracting gas from the massive Groningen field since 1963.

Last year, a total of 18 quakes measuring 1.5 magnitude or higher were measured in the Groningen gas field, according to the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI).

- Compensation will be paid -

Top officials from ExxonMobil, NAM and Shell met MPs late Thursday and vowed that thousands of compensation claims for damage to homes and businesses would be paid.

"NAM is financially robust," said Marjan van Loon, chief executive of Shell Netherlands.

"All the bills will be paid," she stressed, adding Shell and ExxonMobil would discuss how the costs would be divided up.

On Wednesday, the Dutch government announced it was setting up a new independent commission next month to assess all claims.

It will handle some 6,000 outstanding claims filed before March last year, as well as another 8,000 registered since then.

The aim is to have as many claims as possible settled by July, with the government then claiming the money back from NAM.

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