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the guardian

Shell and Exxon’s €5bn problem: gas drilling that sets off earthquakes and wrecks homes

Groningen has been one of Europe’s richest gas fields for 30 years, and thousands of people say their homes have been damaged by the tremors that drilling sets off. Now a class action may finally bring them compensation – and force a rethink of European energy security

Annemarie Heite, whose home in Groningen has been scheduled for demolition after earthquakes caused by oil drilling.
‘Nobody is taking this seriously, not the school or the mayor, no one’ … Annemarie Heite, whose home in Groningen has been scheduled for demolition after earthquakes caused by oil drilling. Photograph: Hans Knikman/Demotix

Five years ago, Annemarie Heite and her husband, Albert, bought their dream home; a traditional 19th-century farmhouse in Groningen province in the northern Netherlands. The couple planned to raise their two young daughters in this charming corner of the Dutch countryside. “Then, the living was still easy, and affordable,” Annemarie says, her tone bittersweet and nostalgic. Today, their house is scheduled for demolition.

Hundreds of earthquakes have wrecked the foundations of the Heites’ home and made it unsafe to live in. Annemarie’s biggest fear is the safety of her daughters. She points to a room. “This is where my children sleep,” she says, “and everyday I’m just picking up pieces of bricks and stuff from the ceiling.”

Heite fears that her children may not be any safer at school. Her daughter Zara goes to a local primary school that has not been structurally reinforced to withstand strong earthquakes. “I feel powerless. It feels like I can’t do anything,” Heite says. “It’s not like I’m a frantic, hysterical person, but nobody is taking this seriously, not the school or the mayor, no one.”

Next door, Heite’s neighbour’s farmhouse is already a pile of rubble, which yellow JCBs are clearing away. “It’s collapsed. It’s gone,” Heite says. “They lived there for 30 years … and over there behind the trees, they demolished another house.”

Farmhouses like Heite’s are disappearing across the Groningen countryside as a peculiar, profound environmental crisis grips the province. At the heart of it are two oil companies, Shell and Exxon Mobil, and a government that, for two decades, denied responsibility for its actions and ignored the voices of citizens and scientists. The scandal has already cost the oil companies €1.2bn [£880m], but last month a landmark court ruling gave the victims fresh hope that their voices could be ignored no longer. And if they are right, the consequences could be profound: a compensation bill that could stretch to more than €5bn in Holland, an energy security headache for Europe, and an invocation for the world to think about the real cost of burning fossil fuels.

Annemarie Heite’s earthquake-damaged family home in Groningen
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‘Everyday I’m just picking up pieces of bricks and stuff from the ceiling’ … Heite’s earthquake-damaged family home. Photograph: Hans Knikman/Demotix

 

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