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For the Dutch province, the Ukraine war is an invitation to pump natural gas

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Residents live on one of the world’s largest gas fields, reserves could replace Europe’s imports of Russian gas Earthquakes forced thousands to leave unsafe homes Government plan to shut down Groningen field in 2023, 2024, gas extraction as last resort in case of shortages

Overschild, Netherlands, March 15 (Reuters) – Pictures of bombed-out hospitals and apartment buildings across Ukraine reminded Jani and Bert Schrag of their home country during World War II. Then the retired couple, who live in the north of the Netherlands, realized they had a resource to help slow President Vladimir Putin’s campaign – natural gas.

The Schrags live above the Groningen gas field, the largest in Europe. They have opposed gas production since earthquakes began forcing them from their homes a decade ago. Now, like the majority of those surveyed in their province, they say that if it helps Ukraine, they may allow more gas to be pumped.

“I didn’t think the words would come out of my mouth,” said Bert Schrag, a former assistant teacher at the University of Groningen, standing near the Ukrainian flag placed on the edge of his window.

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The Sharaj family home, a prefab building dating back to 1997, had to be demolished and rebuilt last year after it was declared unsafe due to earthquakes caused by gas extraction. The couple said nearly every home in their 500-person village, Overshield, needs to be completely renovated or replaced. Residents across the region have been campaigning for years to shut down the gas field.

“Putin has managed to change my mind,” Schrag said.

His response exemplifies the sudden shift in energy policy across Europe that resulted from the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The incursion, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky likened to a new Iron Curtain falling across the continent, has highlighted Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and sparked a scramble to secure scarce non-Russian energy resources — from the United States and Qatar to Japan, which would divert some of its gas imports. Natural liquefied to Europe.

Russia denies targeting civilians, saying it is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine. Even as the conflict rages on, Russian gas continues to flow into Europe, accounting for 40% of its total supply. But a Russian Foreign Ministry official said on Saturday that the European Union would end up paying at least three times the cost of oil, gas and electricity as a result of the sanctions imposed on Moscow.

From Germany to the UK, policymakers who have been pushing to cut back on hydrocarbons to slow climate change are having to scale back those ambitions. Germany is considering extending the life of coal or even nuclear plants. read more. UK lawmakers have called on the government to lift the ban on hydraulic fracturing.

The Groningen field contains approximately 450 billion cubic meters of recoverable gas. That’s nearly three years of European imports from Russia, according to Rene Peters, a gas specialist at the Dutch Organization of Applied Sciences, better known by its Dutch acronym TNO.

Fuel from Groningen has heated Dutch homes and generated electricity and the power industry in the Netherlands and abroad for half a century. Between 2000 and 2018, the Netherlands exported 202 billion euros ($221 billion) worth of gas to Germany, Belgium and France, according to Statistics Netherlands.

Science has shown that gas extraction can destabilize the ground above deposits and the Dutch gas production watchdog warned last week that production, even at low levels, would increase earthquake risk for people living in unsafe homes.

“As long as people in Groningen are at greater risk of dying – from homes collapsing as a result of a major earthquake or from stress and uncertainty – the phase-out of gas production and the rapid realization that reinforcements will remain essential to safety,” said Theodor Kuklkorn, Inspector General at the State Superintendent of Mines.

The government said in a statement on Monday that it still aimed to permanently close the field as soon as possible, in 2023 or 2024. But it said the new uncertainty, “due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine”, meant Groningen gas was needed. As a last resort.

After years of wrangling over compensation with the government and Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), the joint venture between global oil companies Shell and Exxon Mobil Corp that runs production, many in Groningen are opposed to increasing production. The Non-Aligned Movement declined to comment for this story.

Schrag says they had to use 25,000 euros ($27,400) of their retirement savings to finish rebuilding their home. They want the government to pledge to cover any costs from further potential damage, but they add that the disruption will be worth it if they can make a difference.

“Our whole town has been turned upside down,” Burt said. “But if we can turn that into something positive and contribute to stopping the war in Ukraine, we need to do it.”

prosperity and pain

This would be a drastic change for the Groningers. A few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Schrags, whose streets are littered with construction sites and abandoned homes, joined thousands of protesters who marched with burning torches to demand an end to the gas pumping.

The gas field, discovered in 1959, is one of the largest in the world. It was in many ways a symbol of the post-war prosperity of the Netherlands, and of Europe as a whole.

When production peaked, in 1982 Groningen provided nearly a fifth of the Netherlands’ annual government budget. Major infrastructure projects were funded from its proceeds. Millions of homes and businesses have been connected to the nationwide pipeline system that generates electricity and spurs industrial growth.

The stake in Groningen itself was too small, said Jan Wijpolgos, head of the Groninger Gasperad Group, a social group, in order to address their concerns about gas production.

Organized opposition began in 2009, but it took many years of struggle for residents to win repairs to their homes. Earthquakes were not recognized as a safety hazard until 2015 by the authorities.

NAM has long denied a link between earthquakes and gas production. In 2018, it agreed with the state to finance compensation and covered the bulk of the costs, but last month it filed for arbitration over the ongoing payment of damage claims.

A large earthquake may cause walls around many people to fall. By the end of January, only 14% of the more than 27,000 homes found through a government-ordered assessment were declared in need of reinforcements, several years behind schedule, according to a report from Groningen’s national coordinator.

More than 200,000 damage reports have been submitted since the 1990s, Wijbolgos said.

Ukraine has highlighted the Groningers’ concerns.

Schrag said the fighting there brought back memories of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, when men in their province were forced to dig trenches and sea levees were opened to cause flooding — part of a failed attempt to slow the advance of Allied forces. .

Recent opinion polls conducted by the Dutch media indicate that the government can count on popular support if it abandons the policy of reducing extraction to zero, if this leads to a decrease in Russian natural gas imports.

A majority of 61% of the 3,000 Groningen respondents to a Dagblad van Noorden newspaper poll said they would support increasing domestic production if it reduced dependence on Moscow, which supplies up to 20% of the gas used by the Netherlands.

A national poll for current affairs program EenVandaag on Dutch public television in late February, in which more than 21,000 people were questioned, showed that 63% would support the resumption of Groningen’s extraction if Russia were to cut off exports to Europe.

“Here, homes may collapse due to safety issues,” Wigpolgos said. There is real bloodshed.”

strong hit

Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine provoked a broader backlash against Russian oil and gas. The United States has banned imports of Russian oil, while the European Commission has published plans to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds this year. The commission said that this year, non-Russian LNG and pipeline imports could replace more than a third of the 155 billion cubic meters Europe gets annually from Russia.

Gas expert Peters said Western sanctions targeting the Russian economy and Putin supporters may escalate the standoff with the Kremlin, which has threatened to retaliate by cutting off the main Nord Stream pipeline that carries gas to Germany.

If that happens, Peters said, increasing Groningen’s production could help parts of neighboring Germany, Belgium and northern France that can use Dutch gas.

But, like other short-term solutions such as increased use of coal-fired power plants, it would undermine efforts to reduce fossil fuels, he said.

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(Anthony Deutsch reports) Additional reporting by Nina Chestney in London, Toby Sterling and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam and Maria Sheehan in Berlin; Editing by Sarah Ledwith

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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