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Clash of interests in Groningen

Since mid-March, residents of Groningen have had access to a single digital portal for reporting damage to property arising from local gas extraction. Why is the Groningen gas issue such a complex problem and why is compensation taking so long? Psychologist Emma ter Mors and public administration specialist Gerard Breeman explain.

Which groups or parties play a role in the discussion on the Groningen gas issue and dealing with the damage from the earthquake?

Breeman: ‘There are three main parties involved: NAM (the Dutch exploration and production company), local residents and government authorities. Obviously NAM has commercial interests; their aim is to make a profit from the gas produced. The residents have individual problems, such as damage to their homes and health issues. And the various local government authorities have to consider a complex array of public interests. They have a duty of care towards their citizens, and to the Groningen residents whose houses have suffered damage and who have health problems arising from the stress of the situation. And at the same time they have to think about gas supplies to the whole of the country and the international agreements on the supply of gas. When State Secretary Wiebes advocated stopping the gas extraction, it provoked an instant reaction from Belgium, where the gas from Groningen is needed. And finally, there are also the environmental considerations: Groningen gas is a fossil fuel and the question is whether this is an acceptable source of energy in the present day.'

Why is it so difficult to reach an agreement? Why is there so much conflict among these groups?

Ter Mors: ‘To achieve the Dutch energy and climate goals, we need large-scale energy projects but these projects can provoke resistance at local level. The interests of the Netherlands economy, the government and society in general may clash or seem to clash with the interests of local residents or particular regions. With large-scale energy projects such as the Groningen gas supply the benefits are felt at national level. However, the disadvantages and costs are at local level, and include damage to homes, the lowering of property values and the feeling of being less safe. There is often an imbalance between costs and benefits, which is experienced as being unfair.' 

Breeman: ‘We can see this stark contrast in many other places in the world: people who live on or close to a natural resource themselves benefit least from that source. But then there is also the need for gas. We can't just turn the tap off  because that would leave a lot of the Dutch population without heat. And a third point that makes it so difficult to reach agreement is the lack of solidarity: there are few signs of support from the west of the Netherlands for the people of Groningen. Handling compensation, and even the first step of accepting that there has been damage, is a long process. As a result, the people of Groningen are feeling hopeless and unsupported, both by the authorities and by the rest of the country. ’

Ter Mors: ‘Exactly. From the viewpoint of the Groningen residents, this is about important, almost sacred values, such as the safety and  health of the residents, but also honesty and fairness. If this is not adequately addressed or recognised over a long period of time, it results in strong negative emotions. At some point in time, it has gone beyond the last straw and people have had enough.' 

Should the government compensate all the Groningen residents who have suffered damage, or is compensation not the solution for the conflict?

Breeman: ‘The lack of solidarity and trust is actually the fundamental problem in this conflict, so that's the prime thing to be put right. Compensation may help, but just compensating the local residents financially is not enough. It is good that the government is now taking a more active role in the conflict, and the appointment of a National Coordinator for Groningen is a step in the right direction. It brings the problem into the public arena so that it becomes everyone's problem, and that's what's needed to restore confidence. Everyone uses the Groningen gas, so everyone has to think about possible solutions.'  

Ter Mors: ‘Compensation would remove the residents' concerns about finances and the stress this causes. It is important that the compensation procedures are transparent and accessible, and that they are applied openheartedly and relatively quickly. The new protocol on earthquake damage in Groningen is an important step in the right direction. But compensation alone won't resolve the issue, particularly not the safety aspects. As long as there are earthquakes or the possibility of earthquakes, residents will most likely not feel safe. Reinforcing buildings may be a means of restoring the feeling of safety.  Scaling back gas excavation and phasing out natural gas throughout the Netherlands may also help. But for the eventual solution, the likelihood of earthquakes simply has to be eliminated. Besides subjective safety, the objective safety of the residents also has to improve if the conflict is to be resolved.' 

Photo above this article: Wall relief on the facade of the former Municipal Energy Company in the Bloemstraat in Groningen.

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