Ukraine War Sparks Fears of More Gas Extraction in Quake-Prone Region

Drilling in the Dutch province of Groningen has caused over 1,000 earthquakes since 1963.

An aerial view of a natural gas extraction plant and pipework above ground at an onshore site operated by Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV (NAM) on November 22, 2021 in Groningen.
An aerial view of a natural gas extraction plant and above-ground pipework at a site operated by Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij on Nov. 22, 2021, in Groningen, Netherlands. Photo: Cris Toala Olivares/Getty Images

The cracks showed first in the walls. They cleaved through kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms. They marred bookstores, cafés, and churches dating to the 14th century. Then came the rifts between neighbors, relatives, and friends as people sought money from the fossil fuel companies to pay for repairs. Schools were razed and children crammed into temporary structures while new, earthquake-resistant facilities were built. On village main streets, shop owners taped signs to windows explaining that their businesses had moved across town. Psychologists went on Dutch television to warn about the damage to society. Canals that had flowed from left to right began flowing right to left. An antique windmill leaned to one side. Even cows started acting strange.

Gas extraction in Groningen, a province in the north of the Netherlands that is home to Europe’s largest natural gas field, has caused over 1,000 earthquakes since Exxon Mobil and Shell began drilling there in 1963. The Dutch government has designated hundreds of homes acutely unsafe, and thousands of others must be reinforced or repaired. After repeatedly taking to the streets at night with flaming torches, residents have pushed the government to increase the number of compensation payments and pledge to end extraction. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing governments across Europe to reconsider their dependence on Russian oil and gas, Dutch pundits blithely offered a solution: further extraction in Groningen.

Before the war, the Netherlands got 15 percent of its gas from Russia. (Across the European Union, the figure is a whopping 41 percent.) Now, as Europe tries to decrease that dependency, its leaders are looking at fossil fuels close to home. “Everybody is afraid that if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin closes down gas flows to Europe, the only option is to increase production in Groningen,” said Peter Kodde, a senior organizer with Milieudefensie, an environmental group based in Amsterdam. On Monday, following reports of mass killings of civilians in Ukraine, some European leaders called for sanctions on Russia’s energy industry — a move that could increase pressure to extract inside the EU.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited a painful debate over fossil fuels across Europe and North America, as the oil and gas industry has seized on the war to push for more extraction. In the United Kingdom, members of Parliament have called to restart fracking. In Germany, the finance minister has proposed lifting a ban on new drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea. In the United States, Republican lawmakers have proposed resuming drilling in the Arctic. In February, Bloomberg columnist Karl W. Smith went so far as to assert: “Fracking may be America’s most powerful weapon against Russian aggression.”

“We have the damage, the uncertainty. And there’s nothing in return. It’s starting to feel like we’re a colony.”

The victims of this approach are people like Groningen resident Coert Fossen. One summer day in 2012, he was sitting at home when his chair began shaking and swaying. Overhead, he could hear the wooden beams that supported the roof of his 80-year-old house creaking. Fossen had experienced earthquakes while living in Pakistan 20 years earlier, but this was different. It felt as if a train were passing underneath his house. It turned out that he was just over a mile from the epicenter.

Fossen became a member of the Groninger Bodem Beweging, whose name means “Groningen earth movement.” All told, some 350,000 people live in the immediate earthquake zone; the group was formed to give them a voice. On its website, the GBB compiles data on earthquakes and their effects. The group’s data showed that the quakes had grown both more severe and more frequent over time. But its activists maintained that the Richter scale wasn’t an adequate measurement because the earthquakes happen just 1.9 miles beneath the earth’s surface, in a layer of damp peat. Because the soil is so wet, quakes pulse out across a broad area. The earthquake that shook Fossen’s house clocked in at magnitude 3.6, which elsewhere in the world is considered minor, but it was strong enough to knock dozens of items off the shelves of a nearby grocery store and damage hundreds of homes.

An estimated ten thousand people march during a rally against gas extraction on January 19, 2018 in Groningen, Netherlands.

An estimated 10,000 people march during a rally against gas extraction on Jan. 19, 2018, in Groningen, Netherlands.

Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

In 2015, Fossen started volunteering for the GBB. He is now the group’s chair. Like many in Groningen, he has a stoic humility about his own predicament. He has filed claims for damage to his house following five different quakes, but he maintains that his own situation is not so bad. He is outraged on behalf of his neighbors, though. Many of those most affected by the earthquakes are older people. Because the earthquake damage has gutted the real estate market, he told me, some of those who have moved to care homes have simply abandoned their houses.

The Dutch government earns revenue from extraction in the Groningen gas field. In 2018, the Dutch central statistics agency found that the government had reaped more than 417 billion euros from extraction in the province since 1965. Much of that money has been invested back into development projects in the west and south of the Netherlands, in cities including Amsterdam and Rotterdam. “We have the danger,” said Fossen. “We have the damage, the uncertainty. And there’s nothing in return. It’s starting to feel like we’re a colony.”

In January, the Dutch government announced that it planned to double gas extraction in Groningen in 2022 to meet demand in Germany. The news sparked a torch march through the provincial capital that drew 8,000 to 10,000 people despite strict coronavirus measures. Another 1.2 million joined digitally. The government took note, and in March, State Secretary for the Extractive Industries Hans Vijlbrief slashed the target extraction amount. When I visited Fossen the following week, the mood in Groningen was subdued. Some people were satisfied with that concession. But those who took a long view of the problem were not. In the latest issue of the GBB’s magazine, Fossen had written, “Anyone living in Groningen knows that fairy tales do not exist. Thunderclouds are looming again.” The magazine’s cover showed a government minister with his hands on a gas valve defecating on a wooden brace marked “Groningen.” The same kinds of braces prop up vulnerable houses across the province.

Only a few years earlier, the government had set 2022 as the date when extraction would cease entirely. Since then, leaders have continually postponed the end date while reserving the right to extract more gas in emergency situations. “We have been saying for years already, ‘Fix a date,’” said Fossen. “Because that will give people here some certainty about the future.” On Friday, the Dutch government said that a closure of the fields in 2023 “remains within reach,” at the same time acknowledging that the energy crisis brought on by the war in Ukraine could lead to more extraction in Groningen as a “last resort.”

Activist Coert Fossen, chair of the Groningen Bodem Beweging, in Loppersum, the epicenter of Groningen’s extraction-induced earthquakes.

Activist Coert Fossen, chair of the Groninger Bodem Beweging, in Loppersum, Netherlands, the epicenter of Groningen’s extraction-induced earthquakes.

Photo: Mara Hvistendahl

I met Fossen in Loppersum, the epicenter of the earthquake zone, where the GBB works out of a room in the old train station. Fossen lives in a nearby town; for his day job, he monitors soil pollution for an environmental institute. With a population of just under 10,000, Loppersum is a collection of spacious brick houses spread out around a towering church. “This used to be a place where rich farmers retired,” he said. The town is about 10 miles from the Wadden Sea, an elaborate tidal flats system that is crucial to global biodiversity.

We left the station. It was a sunny spring day, the sky a brilliant cloudless blue. Across the street from the GBB office, a house built around the turn of the 20th century was being reinforced. The entire edifice was wrapped in scaffolding, and the property was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. “The complete structure has to be checked,” Fossen said. “The walls may need to be made thicker and strengthened. And they’ll look at the windows.”

Fossen stopped in front of the house next door. To me it appeared intact, but Fossen pointed to a discolored patch of brick. “See there, below the windowsill? Those are repaired cracks.”

We kept walking. Everywhere were cranes, piles of wood and cement, and empty, bulldozed lots. The sound of chirping birds mixed with the din of clanking metal and humming machines. In 2020 alone, 63 homes were marked for demolition in Loppersum.

Gas was discovered in Groningen in 1959. In an interview for the 2017 documentary “Geschenk uit de bodem” (“Gift from the Earth”), retired Exxon engineer Douglass Stewart described visiting the Netherlands at the time and calculating how much gas was in the ground. “I said to myself, that would be almost the biggest gas field in the world.” He recalled thinking, “When I go back to Exxon, I’m going to tell them they’ve got a lot of gas, and you’re going to make a lot of money.” In 1963, Shell and Exxon began drilling and extracting through a joint venture called Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij, or NAM.

Much of the Netherlands is reclaimed land at or below sea level, and its complex network of dikes, dams, and canals functions only with extensive engineering and oversight. When the waterworks fail, the consequences can be disastrous. In 1953, for example, a storm breached dikes in the south of the country, killing 1,800 people. In Groningen, fossil fuel interests acknowledged early on that extraction would cause the earth to sink, prompting a need to adjust the waterworks. But they otherwise downplayed the possible side effects of tinkering with such a delicate landscape, along with the broader impact of drilling for gas, which they touted as a cleaner alternative to coal.

Residents started to feel earthquakes in the 1970s, but the government only installed seismometers in 1986. In the years that followed, the tremors intensified. A local scholar and hobby geologist named Meent van der Sluis warned that the tremors were related to drilling. NAM ridiculed him. “It was denied until it was impossible to deny any more,” said Kodde, of Milieudefensie. Today there is a monument to van der Sluis alongside a road in Groningen: a 26-foot-tall sheet of steel, split by a giant crack.

Technically, NAM was subject to government regulation. In practice, though, the company maintained close ties with regulators. “It’s my impression that the system was designed for them to hold hands forever,” said Tom Postmes, a social psychologist at the University of Groningen who studies the effects of damage from extraction.

“It’s my impression that the system was designed for them to hold hands forever.”

The fossil fuel companies and the Dutch government nonetheless fell out after it became clear that thousands of houses would need to be repaired. NAM — and, for a while, an institute closely aligned with the joint venture — was responsible for assessing damage, an arrangement that led to many dissatisfied residents. In 2017, following public pressure, the Dutch government took control of the process, while NAM continued to cover the costs of repairs. But inequities persisted.

To many, the repair and compensation process feels arbitrary. The homes on one side of a street I walked with Fossen had been rebuilt, yielding tidy duplexes on treeless lots. Across the way, people still lived in vulnerable housing. “How do you explain that on the one side of the street the houses are unsafe and need to be reinforced, and on the other side of the street they are safe and don’t need to be reinforced?” said Ina Blink, the director of Stut-en-Steun, an organization in Loppersum that supports residents affected by extraction. “The result is social disruption.”

Residents end up battling the authorities over whether the cracks in their kitchen were caused by gas extraction or normal aging. “Many people perceive this isn’t just,” said Postmes. “They go and appeal. They get bogged down in procedures. The bureaucracy and the risk of getting into conflict with authorities, that is the most disruptive.” The process can drag on for so long that some choose to avoid it, either opting for one-time compensation payments or foregoing damages altogether. In a 2016 survey of 16,300 Groningen residents, Postmes and colleagues found a significantly elevated risk of stress-related health complaints among people whose houses had been damaged more than once.

A new, earthquake-resistant school in Loppersum
A construction site where a house was razed following earthquake damage.

Left/top: A new earthquake-resistant school in Loppersum, Netherlands. Right/bottom: A construction site where a house was razed following earthquake damage. Photos: Mara Hvistendahl

Fossen and I passed Loppersum’s new school, a single-story structure with many supporting columns and few windows. Eventually we reached the outskirts of town. On the edge of a field, near a flock of grazing sheep, people were living in bland temporary buildings that resembled strip malls. The wait for a new house can stretch to over a year. I remarked that the dwellings looked small. “There’s a running joke saying that all these temporary houses are very comfortable,” Fossen said. “You can turn on the TV with your nose.”

As the war in Ukraine drags on, the profit incentive to extract more natural gas is high. During the 1970s energy crisis, both fossil fuel companies and the Dutch government reaped significant profits. Even today, some fossil fuel proponents contend that because there have so far been no fatalities in the Netherlands, extraction is safe. (Activists say that’s a low bar.)

In March, a local newspaper claimed that 60 percent of Groningen residents supported increasing extraction to counter Putin. Activists immediately questioned the survey of 1,000 residents. Had they asked people whose homes were damaged, whose livelihoods were destroyed? “We know many residents who think otherwise,” said Blink. “They might feel solidarity with Ukrainians. But if you chat with them for longer, then it turns out that they actually don’t want more extraction. The past 10 years were not an example of how we should go forward.” A market researcher for the company that conducted the survey, Enigma Research, told The Intercept that the sample was not randomly selected. Instead, Enigma relied on results from two different internet polls: an ongoing panel of Groningen residents and a poll on the newspaper’s website in which people were asked to fill in their postal codes. The researcher, Robert Oosterbaan, said that Enigma had then selected responses by age and gender so that they reflected the overall demographics of the province. Only 34 percent of respondents live in the part of Groningen affected by earthquake damage — the same ratio as in the province as a whole.

Whether more gas will ultimately be extracted in the Netherlands because of the war remains unclear. At the very least, Groningen residents and activists hope that the conflict will provide an opening for a public discussion of the consequences of the country’s reliance on gas. “It’s a silver lining,” said Postmes. “We start asking ourselves the question, ‘Where does all this energy come from?’”

One obvious solution is to decrease the use of fossil fuels altogether, through rationing and other policy changes. “What we now need is a real understanding that this is a crisis, and we need a crisis approach,” said Kodde. “That means dumping everything that’s market-based and voluntary. And it has to be way more total and way more demanding.” On Friday, the Dutch government seemed to move in that direction, launching an energy conservation campaign and announcing that thermostats in government buildings would be adjusted to reduce reliance on Russian gas. The EU recently released a more ambitious plan to increase reliance on renewables, but the EU does not have the power to enforce this at the member state level. For now, the decisions made in Brussels are far from the reality of life in Groningen.

Even after gas extraction in Groningen stops, the earthquakes will continue for years. Decades of drilling and extraction have left fluctuations in pressure beneath the ground. To compensate, gas will continue to flow from areas where the pressure is higher to areas where it is lower. No one knows exactly when the tremors will cease. “There’s hardly any experience in what the effects are over time in highly populated areas,” said Fossen.

The last earthquake to hit Loppersum was on Friday. A Groningen resident tweeted that they and their partner had taken bets on the magnitude, adding: “The winner gets to send an angry email to NAM.” The quake registered at magnitude 2.7, prompting 250 damage claims as of Sunday.

Before we parted ways, Fossen took me through Loppersum’s sleepy downtown. Several storefronts were under construction; most businesses were closed. But stenciled on one window was a torch. Underneath it, in Dutch, were the words “Fight for Groningen.”

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