/Shaking things up

Shaking things up

The recent earthquakes that have hit Groningen these past few years have done more than shake the ground. They have shaken up people’s lives and the future of Groningen.

Right now, The Netherlands is the EU’s biggest gas producer due to the large natural gas field in Groningen reaching, 45 kilometres from North to South, and 25 kilometres from East to West. It is the tenth largest in the world.

But after about 50 years of drilling, something had to give. That something ended up being the homes of Groningen’s citizens after they were destroyed in earthquakes linked to the fracking.

They started as minor tremors, and were not considered a major concern until the 3.6 magnitude earthquake hit the village of Huizinge in August 2012. This led to the Ministry of Economic Affairs commissioning a study which concluded that induced seismic events occurred as the result of the depletion of gas in the area.

Beginning October 1, 2016, the Dutch government capped gas extraction to 24 billion m³. A drastic change, compared to when the extraction hit a historical high in 2013 of 54 billion m³. Since then, the earthquakes have weakened and lessened in frequency. The state expects to lose €345 million annually from this cap in gas production, leaving Groningen in a race toward renewable energy.

Let us not forget where this has left Groningen’s citizens.

Camping on her land in Bedum, Annemarie Heite is a teacher at Hanze University, and soon expected to be the new head of the Corporate Communications Department. She is also the mother of two: Annemijn, 11, and Zara, 13.

She owned a traditional 19th-century farmhouse of which she and her family moved into in 2011, one year before the big earthquake in Huizinge. Homes just like Heite’s have disappeared all around the area.

“This summer big bulldozers came in and they just took everything away… And right now you see that thousand and thousands of homes in Groningen need to be strengthened.” Heite explained as she described the final demolishing of her family’s home. She has  “lost just about everything due to the earthquakes and all the problems.”

After learning that the farmhouse could not be saved from the smallest earthquake, but could be restored to a point ensuring the safe escape of Heite and her family during a disaster, Heite and her husband, Albert, decided to rebuild it from scratch.

When asked what programs were available for the people who fell victim to the earthquakes, Hein Dek spokesperson for Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), a Dutch oil and gas company in partnership with Shell and Exxon, said, “it is important what words we use, because victims is a heavy word, because when we had the earthquakes, there was only damage to housing, there were no casualties or injuries. It is important to understand that NAM’s private partner is responsible for all damage coming from earthquakes. We have the CVW, center for safe living, and they carry the enforcing of the housing program.”

“And I am not even angry with NAM or Shell. I am far more angry with our government, they are primarily responsible for our safety, and they just let a company such as Shell be the person who can judge if you have damage due to earthquakes, how it should be solved and when it should be solved. And the government gives this task to Shell, whom is the butcher who has to control his own meat.” Heite said.

Heite was hosted on a late night show in The Netherlands to speak about the documentary, De Stille Beving, coming out January 29 on regional television and nationally late February. 30 cameras tell the story of a family from a disintegrating village living in a home that is near collapse over the course of three years.

After long negotiations and headaches, NAM finally asked to speak to Heite before she went on the show.

“One member from the board of directors said ‘no matter what you choose, if you want to get into another house, if you want to restore and strengthen this house, or even build a new house, it shouldn’t have any financial consequences for you. We are going to help you out with everything.’” Heite recalled.

She went to her interview feeling quite positive and optimistic, “I had my future ahead of me again. All the years before, I was struggling and negotiating with NAM.”

But that positivity soon deteriorated when NAM went back on their word, stating that rebuilding the house as it was before was unreasonable. So the negotiations about this family’s future started once again.  

After realizing that by the time the lawsuit was over, their kids will be grown and out of the house, Heite and her husband decided to “put water in the wine.” It just was not how they wanted to raise their children or spend their lives.

“So that means, in terms of right and wrong and a lawsuit, we didn’t get our right. But we have our lives back.” Heite seemed dignified in her statement.

So after making a deal to rebuild a home with the same square footage, gaining a budget from NAM and an outside loan Heite had to take on her own account, her family is back on tract to rebuilding their lives, in a literal sense of the word.

“You know, in a way we can’t even complain because we are already very, very ahead of many people in Groningen who are still in the stage of negotiating and time is on their side you know.”

Earthquakes are not the first natural disasters that have caused The Netherlands to turn over on it’s head. The North Sea Flood of 1953 hit the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland. But being a country with 20% of its territory below mean sea level, The Netherlands was bound to get the worst of it, recording 1,836 deaths.

Realizing the magnitude of their situation, The Netherlands put their time and resources into creating the Delta Works, a series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers constructed to protect the country from the sea. Since then, the American Society of Civil Engineers has declared it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Much like Delta Works, Groningen needed to start looking for a solution, or better yet, an alternative to natural gas.

Environmental Psychologist Linda Steg spoke about the future of Groningen. “The municipality of Groningen also has a program to motivate sustainable energy production and use. And they announce different strategies to accomplish that. I believe most, if not all, municipalities in the Netherlands have this ambition” she said.

NAM is even attempting to take a role in the province’s energy transition. Dek stated, “in the 60s, we were the leading partners in switching from coal to natural gas, so we have some experience in transition.”

Further explaining the role of natural gas in the fight for clean energy,  “natural gas is one of the cleanest fossil fuels, and there is also a market demand at least for the coming years or even decades for clean fossil fuels. It is not only an energy transition, but also a market transition” he said.

NAM also funds over 100 projects concerning sustainability in Groningen’s communities.

“The NAM Livability and Durability program is how we invest in community projects coming from the villages and people inside of Groningen to improve the livability of their environment.  It is basically the community saying that for our improvement and livability we need this that or the other. Then we sit down with them at an early state and see how we can help them shape the project, and then, at the end of the day, they will or will not get  financial contribution.” explained Janny Wilkens, account manager for NAM’s Livability and Durability program.

On a larger scale, a collection of 200 members including research institutes, companies, and governments have banned together in a public-private partnership called Energy Valley in attempt to reach Groningen’s ambitious goal of 21% renewable energy by 2019. Two of their many projects include green gas hub Suiker Unie Groningen and Northern Netherlands Offshore wind (NNOW.)

Suiker Unie


Suiker Unie,  part of the Biogas Centrum Groningen research facility, produces sugar from beets and uses byproduct of the sugar production of the beets and beet leaves to be used for green gas, better known as Biogas.

Energy Program 2016-2019 Project Manager Jeroen Bakker spoke about Suiker Unie viability to reaching their energy targets,  “I believe that biogas is very important, that it is something being done already and it’s something that can be done in the future. Its green gas, so what you want is to be used in an industry that frames itself as an industry that wants to use green gas instead of fossil fuels and so they will pay more for that gas.”

According to a study conducted by  Roggenkamp & Templeman, In 2011, the Netherlands ranked top five in biogas productions, with 130 biogas.

The Northern Netherlands also seems to be the ideal place for offshore wind farms (OWF) due to having a widely known history of harnessing the power of wind, an international reputation for civil engineering in aquatic environments and substantial wind resources in a favourable part of the North Sea.

Yet, wind farms are frequently dismissed as an option due to their noise and eye pollution.

“In the Netherlands the wind energy is the most efficient way to generate that renewable energy, but everyone hates the windmills. People believe their house prices will diminish, they call it horizon pollution, or visual pollution. And it might not be the case that the person living in the house hates the windmills but is afraid that the next person might not like them and will cost the value of the house to drop. People living really close to them experience the shadows from the blades or the noise but only if you really live close.” said Bakker.

In attempt to regain positive attention toward offshore wind power, The Northern Netherlands Offshore Wind (NNOW) group was founded in 2010 by NOM, Energy Valley and NHN. So far, 80 companies have involved themselves with NNOW, perpetuating the offshore wind industry craze. In addition to networking and promoting, NNOW gives attention to “R&D and business development and to training adequately qualified personnel.”

To top it all off, Groningen’s strong and plentiful initiatives to go green has attracted companies like Google to set up a large data center. Google has an ambitious goal to use 100% renewable energy in all areas of its operations (offices, data centres, and so on.) by 2017. This would create a carbon footprint of zero here, and they are convinced that it will be achieved. At this stage, it seems achievable in Groningen.

It is easy to get distracted by all of the new innovations coming to Groningen, especially when you hear something like it being the new testing ground for 5g data. But we should not forget the wise words of psychologist Linda Steg about the negative spillover effect:

“The theoretical explanation for negative spillover is more of a licensing. I did something good, so now I am licensed to do something bad, overall I am good enough.”

Let us hope that the municipality of Groningen does not adopt this attitude with it’s shiny new toys when considering its citizens.

“But the thing is that you can’t solve problems at a high level. For example, positioning this energy transition in Groningen. You first have to solve the problems of the people.” confirmed earthquake victim Heite.