After establishing that drilling for gas is causing earthquakes in North Groningen, and subsequently spending a year on investigating the effects and risks of these earthquakes, the powers that be have finally decided to reduce the rate at which gas is being extracted. In fact it has dropped by 80 percent in Loppersum, the heart of the area hit by earthquakes. Meanwhile, debate about the economic effects of these measures still focuses on the direct impact on the government’s coffers.
This is largely the result of our attitude to gas revenues from the very beginning, some fifty years ago. At that time, the expected upsurge in nuclear energy meant that extracting and selling gas as quickly as possible seemed to be the best option. The gas reserves were never seen as capital that could be usefully invested (as the Norwegians did twenty years later), but as a welcome addition to the country’s current account. I suppose you could say it was a cultivated Dutch gas revenue addiction.
Now that two-thirds of the Groningen gas field has been squandered, it is probably too late to invest the revenues in a fund that would only pay out interest to the government coffers. On the other hand, there may still be time to put natural gas and gas revenues to more prudent use, namely as a means to smoothing the transition to sustainable energy.
Natural gas is intrinsically a fairly clean fuel, which produces a low CO2 emission per kilojoule and few noxious substances. As these properties have relatively few advantages in a normal power plant, Groningen gas does not need to be burned to generate electricity. An electricity generating plant can run perfectly well on the gas we buy from other countries.
Groningen gas, with its specific calorific value, should be used in boilers in people’s homes, in offices and in small business premises. Another example of a more sustainable use of Groningen gas would be to burn it in a peak demand plant, which generates electricity in response to fluctuations in the availability of solar power and wind energy. Using Groningen gas solely to this end would be a big step in the right direction. Therein lies a task for the government.
It would also mean that gas could be extracted from the Groningen field much more slowly, a move that is sorely needed. It will be another fifty years at least before society (down to the household level) will be able to survive without natural gas. Gas is currently being extracted at the rate of 40 billion cubic metres per year. At this rate, the field will be empty within twenty-five years. This is why we need to halve the amount we extract. Another obvious advantage is that it would reduce the risk of major earthquakes in North Groningen.
The government should pump all the gas revenue generated in the next few decades into ensuring a smooth transition to sustainable energy. This does not only mean investing in home insulation and encouraging home-owners to fit solar panels, for example, but also investing in technology to enable CO2 to be stored underground and developing alternatives to natural gas. This would turn the Groningen gas field into a Dutch sustainability fund.
Henk Moll (1952) has been Professor of Natural resources for sustainable production and consumption in the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (IVEM) of the University of Groningen since 2004. Moll conducts practical environmental research at both local and international level, and in association with other fields such as psychology and public administration.
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