The largest gas field in Europe is located just a few kilometers across the German border in Groningen in the Netherlands. But for 40 years, far less has been funded here than would be possible. It is expected to close completely next year. The gas causes serious problems.

First there is a bang. Then the glass in the window panes vibrates, books fall over, pictures fall off the walls. Cracks in the masonry can be seen the day after. This is how Dick Kleijer described his everyday life in Loppersum in the Dutch countryside to Deutschlandfunk seven years ago. Perhaps, he thought at the time, it would be safer if he and his wife slept in the garden shed from now on. It’s made of wood, so they’re safer in the next earthquake.

Many people in the Netherlands feel the same way as Kleijer. The entire landscape between the city of Groningen and the North Sea is an earthquake zone. The first tremors were measured here as early as 1985, and since 2005 they have become more and more intense. The strongest reached a value of 3.6 on the Richter scale in 2012. Not enough for a catastrophe, but more than enough to cause damage – material to homes and mental to residents. Around 150,000 houses in the region are damaged and around 10,000 residents have stress-related mental problems.

The reason for all the trouble lies 3000 meters below the surface of the province of Groningen. In 1959, employees of the Dutch oil company NAM drilled here for the first time in a field near the small town of Slochteren. In the years before, smaller natural gas fields had been discovered in the Netherlands and so the companies were now looking for further deposits. In fact, the NAM employees found natural gas, but it was only in the years that followed that it became clear how large the field under the Dutch province actually was.

The exact figures vary, but it is said to have once contained between 2100 and 2800 billion cubic kilometers of gas. That would put it in the top ten of the world’s largest natural gas fields, on par with some Russian deposits and just behind the Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, from which the gas that was delivered to Germany through the Nord Stream pipelines came.

The discovery of this vast deposit was a boon for the Netherlands. The state secured 40 percent of the shares, with the other 60 percent going to NAM owners Shell and Esso. In addition, the company Gasunie was founded, whose property was shared by NAM and the state. Until 1968, in just five years, it connected all Dutch cities to the gas field via pipelines. Funding really took off in the 1970s. At its peak, 87.7 billion cubic meters were pumped out of the gas field – that would roughly correspond to Germany’s current annual consumption.

The Netherlands made it rich: the state secured up to 95 percent of the profits from the gas business at times. By 2018, 417 billion euros had flowed into the state coffers. The money is now seen as the basis of the Dutch welfare state.

But it didn’t take long for the first problems to literally surface. As early as 1963, during the discussion in Parliament, a member of parliament from the province of Groningen warned that gas extraction would create cavities in the depths, which could cause the ground above to sink in. An engineer also publicly warned against this and urged that part of the gas revenue should be kept for claims settlement. A government study that came to the same conclusion has never been published.

From 1985 at the latest, the first earth movements were actually recorded in the province of Groningen, and the first houses slid down. In 1991 the first earthquake that could be attributed to the gas field was recorded. Since then, the tremors have become more frequent and violent. Since the worst earthquake in 2012, the public debate has tilted. Gas production in Groningen has been severely curtailed since 2014. Last year only 6.5 billion cubic meters were removed. As of this year, the field should actually stand still and only be used in emergencies such as a particularly cold winter.

But the Ukraine war and the energy crisis have reignited the discussion about the Groningen gas field. Operator Shell says that production could be increased to around 46 billion cubic meters per year in the short term without major investments. That would be enough to almost offset the Russian delivery freeze. Dutch Mining Minister Hans Vijlbrief is under pressure because the EU and some member states are also putting pressure on the Netherlands to expand production again. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he wanted to keep that in mind as a last resort “in extreme cases, if all else fails”.

The residents of the province will not like to hear that. It’s only been two weeks since the earth shook again. With a magnitude of 2.8 on the Richter scale, the area around the village of Uithuizen near the North Sea coast was hit. It was the strongest tremor in years. Four more weaker earthquakes have been recorded since mid-August.

The damage caused by the continuous tremors is enormous: A study in 2015 came to the conclusion that it would take 27 years and cost 30 billion euros to structurally reinforce all houses in the earthquake area. Because even if the Netherlands stopped all funding today, the tremors would not stop. In some areas, such as Dick Kleijer in Loppersum, courts have now banned gas production.

Accordingly, the Dutch government has further reduced the subsidy since October 1st. By the fall of next year, only 2.8 billion cubic meters will be pumped. This minimum amount is primarily intended to keep the systems in good condition. In any case, it will be over by 2028, but the Netherlands wants to try to close the field as early as next autumn or – if that doesn’t work – in autumn 2024.

There is still a lot of natural gas under Groningen’s earth. Depending on the estimate, it could be between 100 and 800 billion cubic meters. In an international comparison, only 12 to 20 gas fields have even higher reserves. 12 of these are in Russia, where some large fields have not even started production. However, the South Pars/North Dome Field on the Persian Gulf, whose wealth is shared by Qatar and Iran, is still at the top.

Follow the author on Facebook

Follow the author on Twitter