The lessons of Groningen

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In a series of blogs, of which this is the first, the Knowledge Platform wants to investigate which lessons we can learn from 'Groningen'. The situation above the Groningen field does not appear to be isolated. We see similar phenomena, on a smaller scale, around small fields and with the development of wind energy. Providing insight into the lessons of Groningen could help to solve problems and possibly even prevent their occurrence. This first blog explains what the lessons of Groningen are. Subsequent blogs will address cases elsewhere. Before we get to the lessons, it is good to first outline the context from which they arise: the crisis surrounding the consequences of gas extraction in Groningen.

Consequences of gas extraction in Groningen

Gas extraction and the associated soil movement in Groningen have many consequences. We have described these consequences in the most recent knowledge overview . These are partly direct consequences such as mining damage, the emergence of acutely unsafe situations and houses that have become uninhabitable. This concerns tens of thousands of damage reports and more than a hundred acute unsafe situations per year.

 

There are also indirect consequences. These arise from the way in which society responds to the damage and security risks. In Groningen there is social disruption due to inadequate damage repair and poor aftercare. Conflicts between residents and authorities arose and often arise from this, for example. The experiences with the damage repair process are so bad that some people no longer report damage. They cannot or do not want to engage in such a struggle again. Gronings Perspectief announced in April 2020 that this concerns about 25% of the residents in the area. There is also a group of residents who no longer report damage, because their house will be reinforced in the future.

Another consequence of the soil movement is the reinforcement that some of the residents in the area will have to deal with. For many residents, this is a radical process with uncertainty about the future. They often have to move several times and are faced with making difficult choices about the (future) home. The reinforcement also causes a major disruption of the living environment and social relations.

Against the background of all this, there is poor cooperation between authorities, governments and NAM. The system set up to do the monster jobs in the province is creaking and beeping. Professionals who have to function within this system every day have difficulty explaining the state of affairs to the residents due to the complexity and complexity. Many professionals work hard, but often have to go back on promises and agreements, sometimes give up and resign. It is not always clear or understandable for residents why certain decisions are made, why it takes so long before a decision is made or why agreements cannot be (or cannot be) fulfilled. This means that many residents have lost confidence in the system.

 

The housing market has also been disrupted by the earthquakes and news of damage to buildings in the area. This has negative financial consequences for residents. Certainly for residents who want to move or for whom the house is their pension pot or legacy. Some people who want to enjoy their old age in peace and quiet are now busy with the authorities during the last precious years of life.

 

Another indirect consequence of the mining damage and safety risks is that some of the residents feel powerless and unsafe. This perceived insecurity is not only caused by physical insecurity, but also by uncertainty, the 'hassle' about claims handling and reinforcement and the financial consequences of all this. This causes chronic stress and is at the expense of the health and quality of life of the inhabitants of the area.

Lessons from Groningen

The policy of governments and agencies is primarily aimed at repairing both material damage and physical safety. In communication from the authorities, the letters from the ministers and in the parliamentary debates, much is said about the numbers of completed reinforced houses, the (expected) severity of earthquakes, the number of damage reports, the interpretation and application of risk models or the costs of the statement. This can all be expressed in numbers, models and targets. The implicit expectation behind all these figures is that when the physical damage and insecurity have been resolved, Groningen residents will forgive and forget what happened. We doubt this will be the case. What all those letters and debates are not about is why people from Groningen will one day regain confidence in the government and what kind of help some of the residents will need in the future. Moreover, it remains unclear why the authorities did not see this coming sooner and what can be done so that a disaster of this magnitude does not repeat itself. The system that is in place now focuses on the crack in the wall, while the crack in humans has much more impact. The most impactful risks for residents played no significant role in the extraction policy and in risk management.

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In the analysis of the impact of gas extraction in Groningen, performed in the knowledge overview , five impact areas are identified:  

1. dwellings (damage, insecurity and uninhabitable dwellings); 

2. environment and economy (housing market, quality of life and threat to cultural heritage);

3. social relations (triangle relationship between resident, government and business and   representation of residents' interests); 

4. residents (Uncertainty, perceived insecurity, ill health) and 

5. repair and mitigation (damage repair, prevention, aftercare).  

Goals and monitoring can be linked to each of these five areas. It would also be possible to test in advance whether mining can be carried out successfully and whether it has a negative impact on the area and its inhabitants.

 

This analysis yields two new insights. First, having and maintaining good relations between residents, government and the operator is required for the smooth running of mining projects. Our impression is that gas extraction in Groningen turned out to be a disaster of non-Dutch proportions, partly because the cooperation between the government and the operator broke down when problems arose and the resident was never able to hook up at all. In addition, there appeared to be disturbed relations between governments. Even now, governments are wrestling with the question of how residents can be involved in the challenges in their living environment, and leaders of civil society organizations are resigning due to dissatisfaction with the state of affairs.

The second new insight is that people in Groningen were insufficiently prepared for social disruption, recovery and mitigation. No fund has been set up in Groningen to deal with any calamities or to pay for repair work. Even before the first gas flowed through the pipes, people were already calling for it . It is incomprehensible that this fund never came into existence, especially since it is known that side effects arise from many mining activities. In order to properly regulate social disruption, recovery and mitigation and to prevent 'Groningen situations' from arising elsewhere in the country, a change in the law is probably necessary. Perhaps also a culture change.

The way in which the Mining Act regulated the exploitation of the Groningen field was inadequate. These lessons from Groningen teach us that a broader view is needed for the successful start-up, operation and completion of mining projects in the Netherlands. In our view, the above-mentioned insights are therefore a valuable addition to current practice in mining projects in Groningen and elsewhere in the country.  

In concrete terms, Groningen's first lesson for mining projects means that both the impact on the physical environment and on local residents must be included in the extraction policy and risk management. The subsoil and topsoil are always connected to each other. In addition, a good relationship must be strived for in every phase of the project between residents, government and the operator. Ultimately, it is in the interest of each party that the project runs smoothly, this result is best achieved when there is cooperation. The interpretation of what constitutes a good course will probably differ in focus per party (for example a focus on safety, lack of nuisance or profitability), but we believe this can be bridged within a good relationship. Finally, it must be recognized that undesired side effects sometimes occur in mining projects and that a plan must be in place to absorb these effects.

The Knowledge Platform expects that with the establishment and maintenance of a good relationship between residents, government and the operator, the other lessons of Groningen will follow to some extent. Residents will then have somewhere to go if there is too much of an impact on their lives as a result of the project. They may also be able to contribute ideas within that relationship about the plan to deal with any side effects in the future. Building up a good relationship between residents, government and the operator therefore seems to us to be the first point of action for current and future projects.

 

Wouter Adams, project researcher

Do you want to know more about this blog?  

In our knowledge overviewInsight into Impact you will find a lot of recent information about the situation in the gas extraction area.  

Gronings Perspectief conducts research into the effects of gas extraction in Groningen on residents of the area.  

The National Ombudsman recently published a reconstruction of the situation in Groningen and will conduct several investigations in the area in the near future.

Last year, the Groninger Gasberaad published an overview of the many regulations and developments.