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Prof. Rien Herber: ‘Better planning of mining activities long overdue’

02 March 2011

Deep under our feet the amount of activity is increasing. In addition to oil, gas and salt, here and there heat is also being extracted, gas is being pumped into the ground and there are discussions about CO2 storage. These activities can get in each other’s way. What is missing is a clear system to determine which activity has priority. That must be organized better, is the opinion of earth scientist Rien Herber. He is in favour of a decision-making model for setting priorities.

Photo Rien Herber
Rien Herber

The Netherlands has been familiar with mining activities deep underground for over two centuries, according to Herber, who held his inaugural lecture as professor of geo-energy at the University of Groningen on 1 March. Mining began with coal, and was followed by salt, oil and gas extraction. In recent years, new forms of use have been added, for example gas storage, geothermal heat and CO2 storage. ‘It’s getting pretty busy underground’, observes Herber. ‘Sometimes the activities can dovetail, but sometimes they rule each other out. Then you have to make choices.’

Above ground, spatial planning is set out in laws and regulations. Herber: ‘This planning is becoming more and more detailed. We plan residential areas, nature, infrastructure and agricultural activities. We regard the surface of the earth in the Netherlands as able to be pretty much changed to taste.’
There’s a fundamental difference underground, continues Herber. ‘There’s not much room for change there. We’re just not able to shift gas fields around because we’re tied to the geology. That means that it’s not possible to apply spatial planning underground. Planning underground activities, however, is a different matter.’ In order to organize that properly, according to Herbers, we need a transparent decision-making model that policymakers can use to make well-founded choices between the various activities going on underground.

Geology has the last word

‘Often the problems resolve themselves’, explains Herber. ‘For example near Veendam where AkzoNobel is extracting salt from salt domes about 1 kilometre underground and the NAM is extracting gas from a much deeper level. Nevertheless, it’s extremely important to know what the interaction is among the mining activities. Just think, for example, of the consequences for subsidence.’
The main question with underground activities is what is possible where, Herber emphasizes. Geology always has the last word. ‘Only then can we ask what do we want where’, explains the professor. ‘These matters are currently usually considered the other way round.’ Other ingredients in the model include the economic value of the activity deep underground: What will it generate? Strategic interest is another important aspect: What will it mean for Netherlands Inc.? In this context it is also very important for the government to develop a clearer long-term energy policy against which the activity can be tested.

The model will also examine the risks, the storage space on the surface, the duration and the reversibility of the underground activity.

Last year the province of Drenthe drew up a structural vision for underground, which already used some of the criteria listed above. The department of geo-energy at the University of Groningen is currently working on a more extensive model at the request of the government that can be applied on a national scale. This latter point is important, says Herber. First, because geology is not particularly impressed by provincial borders, and second because the Netherlands is too small to contain twelve separate structural visions.


Lately, support has been considered to be an important criterion for underground activities. The decision-making model does not weigh that element as an ingredient in advance. Herber: ‘The idea is that support should follow from the application of a good, reliable decision-making model. Once society understands the criteria and arguments, the discussion is cleansed of the mystifications that are so often the cause of confusion and overheated emotions. It makes policy transparent and provides a framework for choices. Whether or not support develops is then at least much less dependent on the heat of the moment.’

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. M.A. (Rien) Herber has been a full-time professor of geo-energy at the University of Groningen since September 2009. He was previously deputy head of the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM). He has also been vice president of Exploration Europe at Shell.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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