Natural gas was never far away for Johan Atema (55). The director of the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), who was born and raised in Kollum, Friesland, grew up among the gas fields. As a child he saw more than three hundred wells looming in the province of Groningen. He knew the NAM as one of the country’s crown jewels. “Together with the Port of Rotterdam, and later Schiphol, the NAM was the mainstay of the economy,” says Atema.
How differently the name NAM resonates now. Since 2012, when the entire country was shocked by the Huizinge earthquake, the name NAM coincides with the trembling Groningen clay, damage to houses and residents beaten to death.
Atema was closely involved in the aftermath of that quake in Huizinge. As the boss of the 100 small fields that NAM has on land, he passed village houses at the time and spoke with residents, municipal councils and administrators. “At the time, such a severe quake was new to everyone – including me,” says Atema. “But there was no bitterness and sourness at the time.” He left NAM in 2013, only to return a few years later.
He still remembers what the arrival of gas from Groningen brought about from 1959 onwards. Within ten years, all Dutch households started cooking on natural gas, homes were heated with gas and Dutch industry turned on Groningen’s gold. “My parents had kerosene lamps in the attic because they weren’t so sure about the gas supply,” says Atema. “But thanks to the Groningen gas fields, it is completely natural for later generations that everyone in the Netherlands always has a warm stove.”
Atema also saw how the post-war Netherlands was built up with “the insane income” from gas. “We have partly built our welfare state with it.” As examples he mentions the financing of the basic exchange, the Betuwelijn, and the Noord / Zuidlijn, the metro line in Amsterdam. So far, more than 400 billion euros has been earned from ‘Groningen’ and most of that money has ended up in the Dutch treasury.
Since 2012, NAM is no longer known as a crown jewel. Nevertheless, Atema did not hesitate for a moment when he was asked to become director of the company in 2018. After three years, the interviews with Atema can still be counted on one hand. In his own words, because he is “not vain” and because the NAM was distanced from the file. But now, he says from his kitchen table in his bungalow home in chic Groningen South, “the honest story about Groningen must be told.”
From 2013 to 2018, you were at Shell in The Hague, when the crisis in Groningen reached its peak. What did you find on your return in 2018?
“I missed the real crisis. Between 2013 and 2016 things got really black, bitter and angry. When I returned, the company was taken aback. At birthday parties, employees had to justify why they worked at NAM. “As a company, we made mistakes and contributed to one of the biggest post-war crises in the Netherlands. We did not play a supporting role in this, but a leading role. ”
Read the interview with Sijbrand and Richtje Nijhoff: How a Groningen horse farmer and his wife exposed the government
Compensation with pain and effort
The scars from the gas extraction were visible in the uninhabitable houses, which were held together by struts. And palpable in the stories of distraught residents, who often received compensation from the NAM only with pain and difficulty. If they got it at all.
For the past two years, NAM has ceased to be responsible for claim settlement: it now falls under the independent Institute for Mining Damage Groningen (IMG). And the reinforcement of unsafe houses has been transferred to the National Coordinator Groningen (NCG).
The State decides, NAM pays. Even in the background, NAM does not interfere with IMG and NCG policy, says Atema. “We have no contact with the IMG and the NCG. Zero.”
Moreover, former minister Eric Wiebes (Economic Affairs and Climate, VVD) decided to close the gas tap as good as from next year.
But 1,000 damage reports are still received every week, tens of thousands of people are waiting for their homes to be reinforced and the ground continues to tremble.
‘We contributed to one of the biggest post-war crises in the Netherlands’
A parliamentary inquiry will start this year on the crisis in Groningen. NAM has already learned lessons, says Atema. “We underestimated the seismic activity of the field for too long and when we figured it out, we wanted to solve it technically and were not empathetic to the residents. Moreover, we thought we could handle the tens of thousands of claims ourselves. But we ended up in an administrative quagmire, while we don’t employ a single public administration expert. ”
Yet not everything has gone wrong in Groningen in recent years, Atema believes. “The fact that Minister Wiebes decided to close the gas tap has reduced the risk of major earthquakes. That was also an important lesson for us: we as NAM should have made that decision ourselves. ”
What is the chance of severe tremors in the future?
“The chance that we will experience a quake with a magnitude of 3.6, like the one in Huizinge, is only a few percent. And it decreases further, because the gas tap closes. That does not mean that severe tremors can no longer occur in the coming years. ”
But, Atema says with a frown, “It is strange that gas production and the risk of tremors are declining, while the costs of fortifying houses and repairing damage go up.”
“Let me put it simply: reinforcement surgery is no longer necessary. All safety studies indicate that the area is now safe. Groningen is now just as safe as Friesland or Zeeland. And that is very good news. ”
So the reinforcement of possibly 26,000 houses, a billions worth of billions of which the bill is largely paid by the NAM, is unnecessary?
“The houses in the earthquake zone about which concrete agreements have been made with us can be strengthened. We have no discussion about that. But half of those 26,000 buildings have not yet been inspected. Those people don’t know whether their home is safe or not. But according to the latest calculations, it appears that fewer than fifty houses need to be reinforced for security reasons. If we close the gas tap next year, there will be even fewer.
“Do we still have to turn those 13,000 uninspected houses upside down, let people move temporarily and eventually strengthen their homes? While the fair story is that it is no longer necessary, because it is safe. ”
Read the reconstruction about the stalled reinforcement: Despite promises from The Hague, reinforcement of Groningen houses does not go smoothly
Stopping the reinforcement operation, which has been difficult for years, would have major consequences. Last year, the cabinet concluded an administrative agreement with the region to allow people whose homes have not yet been reinforced to choose: either continue according to the old process or receive 30,000 euros and have your home inspected based on the latest calculations. “Then we agreed that the reinforcement will continue, but according to the latest standards,” says Atema. “The government has not updated those standards anymore. Against all agreements. ”
So thousands of people have been waiting for years for their homes to be strengthened and now it appears that this is only necessary for 50 buildings? That message is for politicians …
And so says the NAM, which is mistrusted in the affected region and has to pay the bill for the reinforcement?
“I think people think logically – certainly people from Groningen. These safety investigations do not come from us, but from TNO, and have been approved by the government. Only the government does not follow the latest standards. ”
You are also openly arguing with the ministry about claim settlement. According to the NAM, too much damage outside the earthquake zone is compensated.
“We pay for the consequences of gas extraction. So if damage is caused by gas extraction in a hundred years’ time, we will also pay. And we do that generously for the earthquake area. But generosity does not mean that everyone in Groningen South will be compensated between 10,000 and 15,000 euros in damages. This entire neighborhood, all my neighbors and neighbors across the street, as well as people in North Drenthe, are reporting damage. I don’t blame them: they make use of a scheme. And I am not about policy. But I don’t think it’s justified that NAM should pay for that. ”
You think that the government promises the people of Groningen too much and has raised expectations among the residents, for which you are not going to pay?
“Yes, I think in principle that we should pay generously for the damage we have caused. But I don’t think we should pay for damage we don’t cause or fortify homes that are safe. There are limits to what we should and should not reasonably pay.
“I’m not about government policy. And I understand that you have to do something with the expectations that the government has raised. But can NAM pay for everything that the government promises, and that has nothing to do with gas extraction or its consequences? No, we cannot and should not. ”
Have you therefore decided not to pay part of the bill for the time being?
“Last year we paid a billion in costs for reinforcement and damage. We have not yet paid one bill, because it has not been specified. Even in the supermarket you will receive a receipt with what you bought, the number of units, the VAT and the total amount. We only receive an amount and an account number to which we have to transfer the money, with a large amount of inimitable codes that we cannot verify. Our accountant will not allow that. ”
The cabinet threatens to use all legal means to ensure that NAM pays the bill. Have you already received a summons?
“No, and I wouldn’t mind if it came. I would like objective arbitration on this. ”
Why do you keep pumping gas from small fields?
“It is estimated that we will need gas for another 15 to 20 years for our homes and industry. That is not possible without the small gas fields – unless we become dependent on Russian gas. ”
NAM suffered a loss of 315 million euros last year and had to reorganize. The number of employees fell from nearly 2,500 to 1,100. Does the NAM still have the right to exist?
“NAM will be a smaller company, but we will continue to extract, store and clean up gas. For the future we are looking at geothermal energy and the underground storage of CO2. But now there is first another, huge job coming up for us. In the coming years, we will have to clear 300 wells in North Groningen.
“And a huge wave of discarded platforms will soon be heading our way from the North Sea. That will be an industry worth tens of billions of euros. My dream is to build up that industry with companies from the Northern Netherlands and that they will not only clean up platforms in Groningen, but also in the rest of the world. ”