(Adds comments from judge, details)
By Toby Sterling
THE HAGUE, April 1 (Reuters) - A Dutch judge on Wednesday refused to order a production halt at Europe’s biggest gas field, Groningen, where extraction is causing earthquakes, dealing a blow to opponents of government policy.
Production from the field was temporarily reduced in February after the Dutch Safety Board warned of possible dangers. A decision on the request for a quick ruling by the country’s Council of State by citizens’ groups from Groningen is expected within two weeks.
But Judge Thijs Drupsteen said he would give the public a sneak preview of his position: “I’m not planning to order the production decision 100 percent stopped.”
That demand was made by rights groups during a heated public court session.
The Groningen field is operated by state-owned Gasunie and output jointly exploited by the government and a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil called NAM (Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij).
The groups’ suit challenges a decision by Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp to set 2015 production from Groningen at 39.4 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas, down from 42.5 bcm in 2014.
One of 40 complainants, Nette Kruzenga, asked the judge to halt production immediately, saying Kamp’s decision was “faulty in terms of procedure and in terms of judgment.”
That was countered by Hans Besselink, a Ministry of Economic Affairs official, who said “further reduction of gas from Groningen could lead to millions of households in the Netherlands and surrounding countries ... left without gas.”
The judge agreed: “In my opinion, that would be such a far-reaching decision that people outside would say ‘now they’ve gone crazy.’ I don’t think I can take responsibility for that.”
Much of Wednesday’s debate focused on production at Loppersum, where the risk of earthquakes is greatest and production has already been cut by 80 percent, and Eemskanaal, where there are vulnerable dikes.
Drupsteen asked questions about the feasibility of further reducing or stopping production at the two sites, but no decision was announced.
The frequent production-linked earthquakes in Groningen have not hurt anyone, but have caused billions of euros of damage to homes and buildings.
In his later ruling, Drupsteen could instruct Kamp to review or even scrap his February decision to cut production levels to 33 bcm. More likely, he could make recommendations for Kamp, who is due to announce a new decision in July. (Editing by Anthony Deutsch, Jason Neely and David Evans)