Dutch government says sorry for gas field causing quakes

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch government apologized on Monday for ignoring risks posed by earthquakes caused by production of natural gas in the northern province of Groningen.

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The apology follows a Feb. 18 report by the country’s independent Safety Board that found that the government, together with Royal Shell and Exxon, had put profits before safety in exploiting the Groningen gas field, Europe’s largest.

“I am very sorry that the safety interests of Groningers did not receive the attention they deserved,” Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp said. “Safety will now come first”.

Kamp added that he would take “the necessary measures” to address the problem, but did not specify what those measures will be.

In February Kamp ordered production at the Groningen field to be cut by 16 percent for the first half of 2015, sending prices in northwest Europe surging. He is due to make another decision on production at the field on July 1.

Parliament has demanded a debate with Kamp over the Safety Board’s findings on Tuesday.

Earthquakes were definitively linked to production at Groningen in 1993, but they became more frequent and more intense after production was increased in 2008.

Increased gas revenues provided an important buffer as Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centrist Cabinet pursued unpopular austerity policies.

After a 3.6 magnitude earthquake in 2012 -- greater than any Shell and Exxon had forecast -- regulators warned the government that citizens’ safety was at risk and called for production to be cut as quickly as possible.

But the government did not order a reduction in production until last year, and did so modestly.

The Groningen field accounts for two thirds of Dutch gas production and the Netherlands supplies about 15 percent of Europe’s total natural gas, providing an important alternative to Russian gas.

In the wake of the Safety Board report, Dutch political parties across the spectrum are calling for Groningen never to return to former production levels, with left-leaning parties seeking further cuts in production.

Provincial elections are scheduled March 18 in which Rutte’s coalition stands to lose support in the Dutch senate, potentially undermining the Cabinet.

Shell and Exxon have so far set aside 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in compensation after 30,000 buildings were damaged by recent earthquakes. No serious physical injuries have been reported as a result of the quakes.

Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Susan Thomas, William Hardy and David Goodman