Quakes force Dutch to end gas extraction in northern region

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to reporters at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to reporters at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

BRUSSELS — The Dutch government decided Thursday to end gas extraction in its northern Groningen region over the next 12 years following protests over the damage from small quakes.

The Dutch cabinet said the maximum yield must be about halved by 2022 or earlier, with more cuts leading up to a full stop by 2030.

"Our end station is zero," said Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

The lucrative Groningen gas field is one of the world's largest natural gas reserves but extraction has led to hundreds of small quakes that damaged thousands of homes.

"We choose security first and foremost," said Rutte after a meeting of his cabinet. On top of real estate damage, the University of Groningen and local health authorities claim that thousands of residents are suffering stress-related health problems because of the quakes.

Shutting off the gas field is complicated since some 90 percent of Dutch homes use the gas and the government has long-term contracts to sell it to neighboring countries. But a Jan. 8 quake reinforced protests and nudged Rutte's government toward its decision.

The quakes occur because gas extraction lowers the pressure in a layer of porous sandstone about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) below the Earth's surface. This causes layers in the sandstone to be squashed together. If this happens along natural fault lines in the rock, it can cause tension and lead to sudden shifts.

Energy giants Shell and Esso - now ExxonMobil - set up the NAM company just after World War II. In 1959, it discovered the Groningen gas field, one of the world's largest, with 2,800 billion cubic meters (98,870 billion cubic feet) of reserves.

It has been incredibly lucrative for NAM and the Dutch government. In the 2016 financial year, NAM paid over 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) to the Dutch government and made a net profit of 526 million euros ($654 million).

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