Bells toll for Europe's largest gas field

Sun Mar 1, 2015 4:05pm EST
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By Toby Sterling

WESTERWIJTWERD, Netherlands (Reuters) - Dutch church bells that for centuries have tolled to warn of floods across the low-lying countryside are sounding the alarm for a new threat: earthquakes linked to Europe's largest natural gas field.

"Money can buy a lot of things, but a building like this cannot be replaced," said Jur Bekooy, a civil engineer with the Groningen Old Churches Association, pointing to cracks in the ceiling and walls of the 13th-century Maria Church in the village of Westerwijtwerd.

Long ignored, voices like Bekooy's are being heard as elections loom this month and following a damning report from the independent Dutch Safety Board.

It accused the government and the field's operators, Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L: Quote) and Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N: Quote), of ignoring the threat of earthquakes linked to the massive Groningen gas field for years.

There are now questions about the future exploitation of the field that lies under the northern province of Groningen, with implications that reach well beyond its significance for Dutch state coffers.

Lessons from Groningen, which lies far from any natural fault line, feed into a debate over the threat posed by hydraulic fracturing in the United States, China, Britain and elsewhere.

The world's 10th largest gas field, Groningen is expected to supply the bulk of the Netherlands' annual gas needs of 20-30 billion cubic meters (bcm) until the mid-2020s.

The Dutch also have contracts to sell 40-60 bcm annually to buyers in Germany, Britain, Italy, Belgium and France. In all, Groningen and a few smaller Dutch fields supply 15 percent of Europe's gas consumption, providing one alternative to Russian supply.   Continued...

A view of a gas production plant is seen in 't Zand in Groningen February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Kooren