FILE PHOTO: Protesters block a facility of Dutch gas production company NAM in Farmsum
By Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Production at the Groningen gas field in the Netherlands should be reduced at a faster pace following a 3.4 magnitude earthquake in the northern Dutch region on Wednesday, Economic Affairs Minister Eric Wiebes said.
Wiebes made the comment to journalists in The Hague ahead of a debate on production at the field that will consider government plans to end output by 2030.
Output at the Groningen field, which is operated by NAM, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil, is set to fall to 19.4 billion cubic metres (bcm) in the year through October 2019, down from a 2013 peak of 54 bcm.
After a quake of similar strength in January 2018, the government pledged to end production by 2030 and to lower it as quickly as possible in coming years.
"We are using all the means available to reduce (production) to zero more quickly and we are ahead of schedule," Wiebes said. "If it turns out we can go more quickly we will."
Once Europe's largest gas field, decades of gas extraction have led to dozens of minor tremors in Groningen each year, damaging thousands of homes and sparking protests by locals and prompting authorities to reduce production.
Residents demanding an outright stoppage took their fight to the highest court in the Netherlands early this year.
But at the time the state's lawyer successfully argued that further production cuts threatened to create shortages for companies and households in the Netherlands and abroad.
A formal government response outlining technical possibilities to cut production more quickly is expected in coming weeks.
"We will await the regulator's analysis of the quake to see if new measures are needed," government spokesman Job van de Sande said earlier on Wednesday.
Gas sector regulator SodM said it would publish its full analysis with recommendations for future production "within a month", with a preliminary assessment expected on May 28.
Wednesday's earthquake was among the most severe to ever hit the region. There were no reports of casualties, but local authorities said around 90 homeowners reported damage in the first hours after the quake.
After last year's quake, SodM said production should be cut to less than 12 bcm as soon as possible to minimise seismic risks.
The government expects to reach that level by 2020, mainly by switching large industrial users from Groningen gas.
(Additional reporting by Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Nick Macfie and Alexandra Hudson)