Can the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate (EZK) make it happen to issue a permit for drilling new gas fields in the middle of the energy transition and after signing the Climate Agreement? And may a outgoing minister, who as a rule have to be cautious with new policy, actually decide to do so?
Last Friday, the ministry published a provisional zoning decision, in which outgoing minister Stef Blok (Economic Affairs and Climate, VVD) indicates that he is in favor of gas drilling in the Wadden Sea near the town of Ternaard, a few kilometers north of Dokkum. According to EZK, gas extraction will be necessary in the coming years as long as there are still insufficient alternatives that can meet the energy needs of the Netherlands.
Objections to the provisional decision can still be submitted up to and including 7 October. If these objections do not constitute an obstacle, the permit will be granted definitively, and gas may be extracted for 15 years from 2023, with a maximum of 7.5 billion cubic meters.
This is not a new policy. What would be new policy is if outgoing minister Blok decided not to do it anymore because of a new insight.
Wim Voermans constitutional lawyer
In the zoning decision, the Technical Committee on Soil Movement (Tcbb), one of the ministry’s advisers, points out that “the chance of tremors and related damage is limited”. It also expects the subsidence to be moderate.
However, nature organizations and local residents are not happy with the provisional decision. “The ink of the latest IPCC climate report has barely dried when the government ‘just’ continues with gas extraction under a protected nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site,” writes the Wadden Association on its website. According to the organization, it is “incomprehensible that the caretaker government has chosen to take such a large and disastrous decision about the most special and vulnerable piece of nature in the Netherlands”.
Criticism from the House of Representatives
The plans are also criticized by the House of Representatives, including from D66 and GroenLinks, and from the Frisian States factions GroenLinks and PvdA. But for the time being, it doesn’t look like the Ministry of Economic Affairs can take a step back with its own hands, says Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law Wim Voermans of Leiden University. “This decision is the implementation of a bound license application. If you [als aanvraagdiener] meets requirements A to D, then that permit must simply be issued. Blok doesn’t really want much, his hands are tied.”
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That is also what the minister writes in an extensive answer to questions from current affairs program EenVandaag. “The NAM has been extracting gas under the Wadden Sea since 1969. The draft consent decree that has now been published is a step in a permit procedure that has been started much longer.” It does not matter, Voermans also agrees, that Blok is demissonary. “This is not a new policy. What would be new policy is if he decided not to do it because of a new insight.”
Many gas fields that are (partially) located under the bottom of the Wadden Sea were discovered years ago and are only now being tapped. Applying for and granting permits “continues continuously”, says professor of energy technology David Smearders (TU Eindhoven). Because the Netherlands is closing coal-fired power stations, the number of gas-fired power stations is even increasing again. “We can also import from Russia, but if you want to reduce that dependence, it is useful to use our own gas fields.”
Due to the closure of the large gas field in Groningen, it is a logical step to move to smaller fields where the chance of an earthquake and damage to buildings is much smaller, according to Smoulders. “And it is also more environmentally friendly, because you have to transport the gas over a shorter distance.”
The only thing the opponents of gas extraction at Ternaard can do is go to court, according to Voermans. “They can appeal to the Administrative Jurisdiction Division of the Council of State if their objections are not heard. But they may also feel that they don’t have much of a chance there.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 31, 2021