On the 17th of January, a housing corporation in the Dutch province of Groningen will be deciding whether to tear down or completely refurbish close to 400 houses, my own parental home included. This is just the latest in a series of decisions concerning the roughly 150,000 houses whose structure has been compromised in the wake of dozens of unnatural earthquakes that have haunted the area for years. The earthquakes are a direct result of the extraction of gas at Europe’s largest natural gas field in Slochteren by NAM (owned by Shell and Exxon Mobil), which has been putting over €265 billion in the hands of Dutch governments since the 1960s.
It is not completely surprising that the government is reluctant to give up this steady stream of money. While the newest coalition has agreed to dial down the gas extraction a bit further, it is still not at a level which is deemed ‘safe’ by experts in the field. This is, naturally, angering those who are feeling the consequences the most: home owners in Groningen.
On the international level, coverage of the issue is remarkably meagre. While some news outlets have attempted to bring the story to a wider public, the real debate has remained primarily domestic. The EU (more specifically: the DG Energy) has spent most of its time lamenting the decrease of Dutch gas in its Quarterly Reports on European Gas Markets while mentioning the very legitimate cause for it not even once.
The EU’s lack of sympathy for the issue and its very one-sided response appears slightly puzzling at first. Surely a Union which aims for a sustainable future should not regret a decision which puts the safety of citizens over further extraction of fossil fuels? It is after all no secret that the consumption of fossil fuels is contributing significantly to damaging CO2 output and thereby to climate change. While gas may technically be the fossil fuel with the smallest carbon footprint, gas leaks along the pipelines make it on average more destructive than oil or coal.
Recent disclosures however, helped to understand the EU’s surprising stance. The Union’s response appears to be a side effect of a much bigger problem: The EU is being forced into a dependency on gas. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) published a report (link) on the influence of the gas lobby in the EU and the results are shocking. Gas companies are represented throughout the the whole decision-making process. It is gas companies who propose new projects, analyse them, and it is the same gas companies who in the end make them happen. Unsurprisingly, they all seem to involve the use of gas in one way or another.
The two European Commissioners in charge of climate and energy policy (Miguel Arias Cañete and Maros Sefcovic) have met with representatives of the gas industry approximately 460 times since the start of 2015, and those were just the meetings with these two EU officials that were logged. Eight out of ten of their most frequent visitors were linked to the gas industry. All in all, gas lobbyists have spent around €104 million (30 times more than advocates for a future free of fossil fuels have spent) in 2016, with our dear friends at Shell and ExxonMobil contributing the humble sum of €4.75 million each.
CEO concludes that the interconnectedness of the gas industry and the European Commission represents a clear conflict of interest, and I can only agree. To quote Pascoe Sabido (researcher at CEO): ‘Turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas’. Much in the same way, gas companies will always continue to protect their own interests. And while the gas industry should not lose its right to lobby with the EU institutions, a more balanced division in the access to and influence within the Union of gas lobbyists and fossil-free lobbyists would only be fair.
In fact, it is of utmost importance that the fossil-free advocates gain more influence because the fossil fuel supply is painfully finite. If the natural gas runs out, having a Union which is locked into gas the way it is today would be disastrous.
What does this mean then for the Dutch issue? On the short term, the prospects look grim. If gas lobbyists maintain their influence and the Union remains dependent on natural gas, then, financial incentives aside, it does not seem likely that the pressure on Member States to extract gas from their fields will decrease. The EU has always been very clear on not wanting to be dependent on Russian gas and importing gas from outside the EU is not only costly but also problematic because many households are currently just not able to receive this (slightly different type of) gas. Seen in this light, the Union’s response to the decrease in Dutch gas is making a lot more sense. The Union requires the gas and there is no reason to assume that this will change anytime soon.
About the author: Angela Medendorp, native of Groningen, recently finished a BA in English Language and Culture and has just started her Euroculture adventure, setting off for Uppsala soon.