Groningen earthquakes: don’t live near gas well, warn locals

Locals from the Dutch city of Groningen have been plagued by earthquakes. They want to warn people in England about living in an area licensed for gas extraction.
  Published:  04 Jun 2019    |      2 minute read

Groningen sits on top of Europe’s largest onshore gas field. Shell and Exxon Mobil extract the gas under a joint venture called Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM).

Earthquakes and digging for gas

In 2018, seismologists detected 57 earthquakes in Lancashire during a two-month period of fracking for gas. The UK fracking industry has admitted that it can’t operate if the government doesn’t relax rules and allow it to trigger bigger earthquakes.

NAM is using conventional drilling to extract gas in Groningen, not fracking – but the earth is still shaking. 170,000 people live in homes that have been damaged by earthquakes, according to research carried out by the University of Groningen.

It felt like a train had run into our house

Peter and Elly Bruijn are both retired music teachers. They moved to the village of Wagenborgen, 20km east of Groningen, in 2007.

Peter and Elly Bruijn, residents of the Dutch city of Groningen
Peter and Elly Bruijn's home has been damaged by the earthquakes in Groningen
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Housing was relatively cheap and they wanted a small detached property where they could both play piano without disturbing the neighbours.

Although they knew there was a history of small earthquakes in the area, the government had reassured people that these had nothing to do with gas extraction. But that changed in 2012 when there was a magnitude 3.6 earthquake. People started making the link.

Peter, 68, says their first direct experience of an earthquake was in September 2015 when there was a magnitude 3.1 quake under the nearby village of Hellum.

It felt like a train had run into our house. When we inspected the damage in the morning we were amazed at how many cracks there were in our walls.

Peter Bruijn

They reported the damage to the NAM-funded organisation responsible for damage repair, and builders made 10,000 euros’ worth of repairs to their house.

NAM denies responsibility

But that was just the start. In 2017 there were more quakes and more damage to the house. Peter says:

"I again applied for compensation, but this time NAM denied responsibility and I had to go to court.

"NAM’s lawyers kept stalling and then used legal procedures to bring almost all the cases relating to earthquakes in Groningen to a halt. We are still waiting for things to start moving again”.

Earthquake damage to the brickwork of Peter and Elly Bruijn's house in Groningen.
Earthquake damage to Peter and Elly Bruijn's house in Groningen. Look carefully at the brickwork.
Credit: Peter and Elly Bruijn

In the meantime, more quakes have exacerbated the problems sorted by the earlier repairs, so Peter and Elly will have to start another claim.

This time they have to deal with a new government-funded body for compensation, but that has a 15-month backlog of cases. And their biggest challenge could be yet to come, says Peter:

“The specialists are now worried about possible damage to the house’s foundations”.

Government forced to act

Public concern over the earthquakes led the Dutch government to announce that gas extraction will be cut drastically by 2022.

Peter welcomes this as it would mean fewer earthquakes but warns “we will have to see it happening first. Our government does not have an exemplary track record when it comes to fulfilling promises”.

Stress-related health problems

“You become a prisoner in your own home” says Peter.

"House values have fallen dramatically so you cannot sell without running into problems with your mortgage. Some years ago there was court ruling that homeowners should be compensated for the loss in value – but they are still working out how to do this.”

The problems aren’t just structural and financial: researchers from the University of Groningen estimate that the earthquakes and problems associated with making claims for damage have caused stress-related health problems for around 10,000 people.

What would Peter say to people in England facing the prospect of fracking?

“My advice would be that if Shell or Exxon or any other energy company wants to start getting gas out of the ground near you, you had better not live there. Move if you can.

"If our experience is anything to go by, your government won’t be much help if there is damage, so try to stop the damage occurring. Do not wait as long as we did in Groningen, or you will definitely have challenges.”