Groningen gas field. By Overheid.nl – https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/stcrt-2017-28922.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108400725

Obviously, people’s notions of risk and safety with respect to climate change plays an important role in shaping the energy policies of western democratic societies. Unfortunately, irrational fears and epidemic paranoia about our impending doom as a result of runaway global warming have resulted in critical errors in energy policy and have put Vladimir Putin in a position to win his energy/sanctions war with the EU.

Exaggerated perceptions of risk are responsible for as much or more of Europe’s current energy crisis as Putin. Energy policy in the Netherlands is a case in point – a point which is well illustrated by the closure of the Groningen gas field in the northeast corner of that country. It is one of the largest readily-exploitable gas fields on the planet.

The Groningen gas field was discovered in the late 50s and by the late 60s the entire country had been connected to the field. Production peaked in the 1970s at over 80 billion m3 annually. In line with declining gas pressure in the field, production slumped to just 30 billion m3 in the late 1980s. By 2013, following a program of compressor installation launched in 1997 things improved, the Groningen field was capable of producing 54 billion m3 annually. However, the next year (2014) the Dutch government decided to phase out production due to concern from citizens about earthquakes induced by gas extraction. As of 2020 annual production was down to 10 billion m3, and in 2021 the Dutch government announced the field would be completely closed sometime between 2025 and 2028.

Ironically, had production from the Groningen field been maintained at its 2013 level, it would account for 98.2% of the politically precarious supply of Russian gas that Europe receives via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. One of the EU’s principal strategies for coping with reduced supplies of increasingly expensive supplies of natural gas is for member states to have their storage tanks filled to 80% capacity by the first of November 2022 and the onset of winter. This past month achieving that target started to look overly optimistic. This was in part due to scheduled maintenance on Nord Stream 1 and the added delay in receiving a turbine undergoing repairs in Canada. Additional supply disruptions engineered by the Russians and thinly veiled threats about the possibility that the Nord Stream 1 line could be shut down again for an extended period of time have European energy consultants divided over the EU’s ability to make it through the coming winter without rationing gas and electricity to households and industry. Serious social unrest and the collapse of EU support for sanctions against Russia in support of Ukraine are real possibilities.

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Not only has the Netherlands prevented its own gas from contributing to the overall European inventory, Russia cut off its sales to the Netherlands on May 31 because the country was unwilling to pay in rubles.

The 46 centimetres of surface subsidence, due to natural gas extraction, in some parts of the Groningen field as of 1991 has been identified as the cause of at least 1,000 earthquakes. Saskatchewan residents living in the vicinity of some potash mines have similarly felt the ground move – but here the subsidence around some mines can be measured in yards as opposed to centimetres. No doubt the fact that the Netherlands is jam-packed with people compared with Saskatchewan accounts for the Groningen quakes getting more public attention than ours.

While a total of 1,000 quakes sounds like cause for serious concern, few of the earthquakes rate very high on the Richter scale. These are not Haiti 2010-level disasters. As far as earthquakes go the worst ones to occur in the Netherlands have been in the southeast at the opposite end of the country from the Groningen field. The earthquakes in the southeast are caused by a tectonic fault line running through that part of the country. Between 1904 and today, the Netherlands has had four earthquakes reading 4.0 or higher on the Richter scale and they all occurred in the southeast. The biggest earthquake to occur among the 1,000 plus occurring in the Groningen field was the 2013 Huizinge quake which rated a 3.6. Over half the Groningen “earthquakes” occurring since 2000 register less than 1.0 on the Richter scale; another one-third register between 1.0 and 1.5. Almost all the rest registered below 2.5.

There have been no deaths attributed to the immediate effects of earthquakes in the Groningen field, but there has been property damage. The NAM agency responsible for managing the Netherlands’ natural gas industry pays compensation to home owners for earthquake damage and provides funds to residents so they can make their homes more earthquake resistant. Nonetheless, research conducted by Dutch academics claims that up to 16 deaths per year can be attributed to the added stress people experience from worrying about earthquakes and applying for compensation – it’s been surmised the stress leads to fatal levels of anxiety and depression in some people.

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One would expect that if the Netherlands’ news and social media worked like North America’s disaster loving media, sensationalized stories about impending death and destruction due to gas field earthquakes may have more to do with anxiety levels than the quakes themselves. Canadians remember the Dutch for successfully recovering after enduring five years of brutal Nazi occupation and their gratitude for our help in liberating them. It is hard to believe that after just a few generations some Dutch people are driven to their deaths by fears of cracked brickwork and plaster.

The Dutch are far less anxious about nuclear energy than neighbouring Germany. It’s true that back in 1994 a Dutch government worried about safe nuclear waste disposal announced the shutdown of the country’s  two-reactor nuclear industry. A small experimental reactor was closed in 1997 and the country’s only commercial scale reactor was scheduled for closure in 2003. That closure was subsequently extended to 2034. In 2021, the Dutch government announced plans to construct two new reactors. What’s more— 61% of the Dutch population are in favour of making use of nuclear power.

While the Dutch appear to have a more blasé attitude with respect to nuclear energy than they do for gas extraction, they remain capable of enacting divisive policies at the behest of the country’s Green activists. On July 10, Green anxiety about the contributions of nitrous oxide from both fertilizer and animal generated nitrogen to global warming, prompted the Dutch government to announce that farmers would be required to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizer by an average of 30%, reductions of 70% were imposed on farmers operating next to sensitive natural areas. In addition, 30% of the country’s cattle and hogs would have to disappear for farmers to be in compliance. Clearly, not all the Dutch are onside with the measure. Over the past couple of weeks Dutch farmers have been shutting down the nation’s transportation network with tractor blockades.

Understanding the social and psychological forces at work in the Netherlands that led to acceptance of nuclear and the rejection of natural gas production and nitrogen fertilizer could prove valuable to developing more rational energy policies elsewhere. Canada is in desperate need of a more thoughtful climate change policy that balances the benefits of emissions reductions with domestic socioeconomic needs and geopolitical realities. Sensationalizing risks and accepting the most apocalyptic global warming scenarios imagined by the most paranoid of activists (and leading Liberals) does not make for good energy policy. Unfortunately, Canadian social science is too  preoccupied with parsing the fine points of identity issues and exaggerated fears about right-wing extremism to think about how better understanding public paranoia might improve national climate and energy policies.

Jim Warren is an adjunct professor and lecturer in environmental sociology at the University of Regina.

 

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