In the Frisian Ternaard they fear Groningen situations

It is quiet on the dike between Wierum and Ternaard. A brushstroke of dark blue distinguishes the gray sky from the water in the distance. Only a group of white gulls floats in the otherwise empty Wadden Sea, waiting for the low tide, after which they can feast on the sea creatures in the dried up mudflats. “If my head is full, I come here,” says Anna Anjema, resident of the Frisian village of Ternaard. “Walking behind the seawall, along the water, I really relax.”

But Anjema, like many residents, fears that this peace will soon be disturbed. The Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM) plans to start extracting gas under the Wadden Sea from 2023. For years, Anjema has spoken out on behalf of the Fêste Grûn (solid ground) foundation, which informs residents about gas extraction, against the arrival of the new gas production location. And she is not alone in this. “The province is against, the municipality is against and the residents are against,” says Anjema. “But it still goes on.”

Now that the Groningen gas tap will be turned off in the coming years, NAM is looking for gas in smaller gas fields. There are 240 of these in the Netherlands, half of which are under the North Sea. The gas field at Ternaard, which is largely located under the Wadden Sea, is the largest Dutch gas field that is not yet in production. If the plans go ahead, between 4 and 7.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas will be pumped there over the next fifteen years.

But nature and environmental organizations expect irreparable damage to nature in the Wadden Sea. Farmers are afraid of salinization of their fields. And residents fear earthquakes and subsidence, which could damage their homes, just like those of the Groningen residents.

Nevertheless, outgoing minister Stef Blok (Economic Affairs and Climate, VVD) is in favor of gas extraction in the Wadden Sea, according to the provisional zoning decision that was published at the end of August. According to the minister, natural gas will be needed for the Dutch energy needs in the coming years and the production of Dutch gas will have a lower CO2emissions than when gas is imported.

Also read:Much misunderstanding about new drilling in the Wadden Sea

Last hope

And with that, the stocking seems to be over. But the residents are not giving up. On Saturday, a demonstration took place that attracted about 200 people and a petition from environmental organization the Waddenvereniging against gas extraction was signed more than 40,000 times. This Wednesday, the last hope of the residents is pinned on the House of Representatives, which is debating gas extraction in Ternaard.

“A great mystery”, Frank Petersen of the Waddenvereniging calls the Waddenzee. If the sea disappears twice a day and the Wad falls dry, ‘it is a gray gunk’. But a gunk that is full of small shellfish that birds depend on. “The Wadden Sea is an indispensable link for many bird species that live or migrate here and the nursery for some fish species,” says Petersen.

But it is not as peaceful and quiet as the Wadden Sea appears from the dike between Wierum and Ternaard. “There is dredging, fishing, salt extraction and gas extraction, while the Wadden area is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site because of its uniqueness and important role for nature,” says Petersen. And new gas extraction is causing even more unrest, fears the Wadden Association. The bottom will sink, leaving more water on the Wadden during the tides. “And less seabed that has dried up means less available food ground for the birds,” says Petersen.

On the other side of the dike, they also fear the consequences of gas extraction. As a result of gas extraction at neighboring villages such as Paesens Moddergat, Anjum and Blije, farmers notice that salinization is occurring. The soil also sinks in the fields, making it easier for seawater to find its way under the dike. And that is something the municipality is very concerned about, says mayor Johannes Kramer (Fryske Nasjonale Partij) of the municipality of Noardeast-Fryslân, which includes Ternaard and Wierum. “This area produces a large part of the seed potatoes that are shipped all over the world,” says Kramer. “Salinization is already occurring on that ground and we fear it will get worse.”

But above all, the extraction of gas in Ternaard is met with resistance because of the fear of conditions in Groningen. In recent years, discussions have been held with residents to limit risks as much as possible and, according to the minister, studies show that extraction can be done safely. Yet the residents are not reassured, says Geertje Schoorstra, chairman of Dorpsbelangen Ternaard. “We have always been against gas extraction, because we do not want the uncertainty about possible damage to houses due to subsidence or earthquakes.”

Despite agreements with the ministry and NAM about annual monitoring of the consequences of gas extraction in the area, Mayor Kramer remains concerned. “It has also been said in Groningen for a long time that gas extraction would not have any negative consequences for the residents, but that turned out to be the case in the end. People are worried about how the soil will react in the long run. We can only be sure about this if we don’t extract gas.”

Demonstration at the NAM gas site in Ternaard.
Photo Kees van de Veen

60 million compensation

Nevertheless, NAM and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate (EZK) seem to have learned from Groningen. In recent years, residents have been able to participate in the discussion about gas extraction in the area and the environment has been compensated for it. If gas production continues, the immediate vicinity of the villages will receive 60 million euros in natural gas revenues over the next ten years. That money should give a boost to the region. The NAM is “very positive” about this, writes a spokesperson. Ternaard should therefore serve as an example for future energy projects, in which the region also benefits financially from the activity in the area.

Although 60 million is a substantial amount for the villages of Ternaard (more than 1,300 inhabitants) and Wierum (more than 300 inhabitants) and it can give them a considerable boost, it does not provide extra support. “We are not the richest area in the Netherlands,” says mayor Kramer. “But we would still rather have no gas extraction and no 60 million euros than gas extraction and that 60 million.”

Village interests Ternaard also looks at it that way, says chairman Schoorstra: “Ultimately, you cannot translate the uncertainty into money.” In addition, the region initially asked for 448 million euros, but after negotiations with the NAM, it came to an amount of 60 million euros for regional projects. “It feels like we’re being fobbed off with mirrors and beads.”

‘Disappointing conversation’

Last Monday, outgoing minister Blok visited Ternaard to allay the concerns of the residents. “But that was a disappointing conversation,” says Schoorstra. Blok arrived in Ternaard with only one announcement: the permit will be granted according to all expectations, because all legal conditions have been met. And the outgoing minister is right in this, said Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law Wim Voermans of Leiden University earlier in NRC: “Blok doesn’t really want much, his hands are tied.” Nevertheless, residents and nature and environmental organizations see room in the law to stop or postpone gas production.

But the residents mainly wanted an explanation on Monday about why it is so necessary to extract the gas under the Wadden Sea, while the energy transition has started. “How much gas do we still need in the Netherlands? And for how long?” Schoorstra asked Blok. “But those questions were really not answered.”

In addition to the concerns of residents, Mayor Kramer sees a greater discrepancy between citizens and the government in the Wadden area. “As a private individual, the government does not yet allow you to catch oysters in the Wadden Sea, because it is a protected area. But the government can afford anything that threatens the vulnerable nature reserve,” says Kramer. “A lot of people are outraged about that, and the government should be consistent about that.”

Protest in Ternaard.
Photo Kees van de Veen

In the Frisian Ternaard they fear Groningen situations
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