A Tale of Two Drillings


An Environmental Justice Comparison of Gas Drilling-Induced Earthquakes in Oklahoma and Groningen

Cracks in the wall of a farm in Appingedam, Groningen.
Teaser Image Caption
Cracks in the wall of a farm in Appingedam, Groningen.

"It felt like a train had run into our house. When we inspected the damage in the morning, we were amazed at how many cracks there were in the wall,” Peter recounts. He points at the cracks spanning the length of the kitchen wall. He is yet to start repairs of the damage done by the latest swarm of earthquakes. Although it has been established that gas extraction caused them, getting compensation from the drilling company has been beset by lawsuits and delays. Moreover, despite worries about the safety of his house, moving is not an option, either: house values in the region have fallen dramatically since seismic activity intensified. “You become a prisoner in your own home," Peter puts it.

The above account sounds exactly like recent news from Oklahoma, where since the onset of the shale revolution large-scale storage of fracking wastewater has caused a dramatic uptick in earthquakes and related damage to local property and infrastructure. Legislators have yet to come up with plans to ensure citizens’ safety and compensation for damage. Peter’s story, however, originates from Groningen, a rural area in the Northeast of the Netherlands that sits atop Europe’s largest gas field. Its communities and policy-makers have been grappling with the impact of drilling-induced earthquakes for well over three decades. Environmental justice concerns regarding the distribution of the burdens and benefits of gas extraction, as well as how to ensure a fair procedure and voice for all impacted parties have been debated extensively. As such, Groningen’s experience holds valuable lessons for Oklahoma: successes to emulate as well as mistakes to avoid.

Part 1: Oklahoma

Drilling hardly is a new phenomenon to Oklahomans. The oil and gas industry goes back to the year 1859 and makes up a sizeable part of its employment (about 55,000 jobs) and GDP (15%, compared to only 3% of national GDP) (Mix & Raynes, p. 178). The swarms of earthquakes plaguing Oklahoma, on the other hand, are unprecedented. The number of quakes is up from about 2 per year prior to 2008 to about 5700 in record year 2015, making Oklahoma the most seismically active state in the Lower 48, with three times as many quakes as California (Mix & Raynes, p. 180). This increase was at first found to coincide with, then be correlated with, and finally to be triggered by a spike in underground injection of fracking wastewater, which  was found to lubricate ancient faults and so lead to quakes. In record year 2015, about 1.5 billion barrels (that’s 63 billion gallons) were injected in underground disposal wells in central Oklahoma. These largely stemmed from Oklahoma’s own fracking boom, but on top of that, the state took in 2.4 million barrels of fracking waste from neighboring states, where regulations are stricter (Mix & Raynes, p. 183).

The resulting damage of the practice has been immense. A recent Stanford study, media accounts, and court proceedings speak of “severe and permanent damage to their persons and property,'' including “cracked and broken interior and exterior walls” and “movement of the foundations beneath their dwellings,'' as well as “mental and emotional anguish, fear and worry” as a result. Damage is widespread, occurring across 23 counties in Central Oklahoma (Mix & Raynes, p. 179). Among the hardest hit are smaller, rural communities and several Tribal nations, such as the Pawnee Nation. Geophysicists also worry about damage to the state’s infrastructure: its bridges, roads, and especially its oil pipelines haven’t been designed to withstand continuous shaking.

Yet, while Oklahoma’s earthquakes undeniably are a problem of immense size and seriousness, nobody knows exactly how far-reaching its consequences are, and thus what solutions would help most where. Exact data on the number and strength of earthquakes and resulting damage are not available, although estimates are 20,000 earthquakes since 2009, causing millions of dollars worth of damage. The Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), understaffed and underfunded, has stopped analyzing data on any but the largest quakes. Moreover, in a 2017 deposition, former state seismologist Austin Holland describes being reprimanded by University of Oklahoma Dean Larry Grillot (also a board member for Pioneer Natural Resources) for his “unacceptable work” linking earthquakes to disposal wells and being summoned by the University’s president, David Boren (also a board member for Continental Resources) to meet with Continental’s Chairman, Harold Hamm. He also described meetings between OGS officials and oil company New Dominion to formulate a rebuke of a further study linking fracking wastewater disposal to earthquakes. Given the lack of funding and oil and gas companies’ undue influence at universities, the absence of systematic studies is not wholly surprising, but certainly alarming (Mix & Raynes, 2018). To date, it is unknown how many Oklahomans have suffered damages, how large the damage to private as well as public property is, and what other social, environmental, economic and health effects have occurred. Independent scientists warn that if nothing is done, the quakes will increase in strength. Environmental organizations worry about fracking wastewater polluting drinking water, and oil spills through damaged pipelines. Qualitative studies document concerning increases in stress and anxiety among residents in the most seismically active parts of the state. But without the exact data, garnering political will to address these issues, and addressing them comprehensively, has proven incredibly difficult.

Oklahoma’s government, however, has interpreted the lack of data differently: not as an urgent call for more research so that comprehensive action can be taken, but as an excuse for “denial, disinformation, and delay,” as an Oklahoma State Professor characterized the government’s response. A significant increase in seismicity was already apparent in 2010, and reports linking the increase to wastewater disposal quickly followed (Mix & Raynes, p. 180). But while other states dealing with the same issues, such as Ohio, Arkansas, and Colorado, preemptively banned the practice, Oklahoma officials maintained that the quakes were “results of natural causes” and refused to tighten their traditionally very lax regulations (Mix & Raynes, p. 183). When the science became undeniable by 2015, the administration and legislature grudgingly stopped refuting evidence of induced quakes, instead putting their energy towards emphasizing fracking’s economic benefits, downplaying the damage wastewater disposal caused, and discrediting those opposing the practice as overly emotional and “irrational” (Mix & Raynes, pp. 181-182). In this, their narrative has been eerily similar to that of the industry, which coincidentally, also funds the campaigns of many state representatives, regulatory agency members, and then-Governor Mary Fallin. Oil and gas companies started emphasizing their positive economic role and, rather than flat-out rejecting the link to earthquakes, cast doubt on the severity of the damage. Accordingly, they warned of “killing the golden goose” and “a reaction of panic not [being] useful”. This coordination went so far as Fallin’s office requesting talking points from Devon Energy on the relationship between wastewater injection and earthquakes, a link they found “awkward (...) we would rather not have that debate”. Similarly evasive, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), tasked with regulating the state’s oil and gas industry, continued defending its inaction as a calculated wait for the data given the economic importance of the industry, maintaining it did not have sufficient authority to ban the practice (Mix & Raynes, p. 185).

With the government unwilling to step in and protect its citizens out of reluctance to upset the oil and gas industry, companies have essentially been left free reign to continue profiting from injecting wastewater without regard for the earthquakes and damage they burden local residents with. Up to today, they neither need to give these residents a choice in the matter nor any compensation. It’s what academics and activists (going back to the Civil Rights movement) alike term ‘environmental injustice’, where the environmental burdens and benefits of an activity are not shared equally, and those impacted are ignored in the decision to inject, regulate, or compensate. Practically, this means that local residents were expected to “just take their losses for the greater good of the oil and gas companies”, as Jennifer Cooper, whose house collapsed during a particularly strong quake in Prague in 2011, put it. The equation becomes even more skewed for imported wastewater. Here, Oklahomans are made to suffer, without compensation, the negative effects of another state’s economic activity over which they have no say, and from which they won’t even benefit indirectly. Environmental injustice is further worsened by the fact that it’s primarily smaller, less prosperous, rural communities and tribal nations that are being hit by the earthquakes - communities with buildings less able to withstand earthquake damage, inhabited by people who more often can not afford to leave or to stay (Mix & Raynes, p. 179). 

If the industry wouldn’t compensate her nor the state protect her, Mrs. Cooper decided, she’d have to go to court. Suing oil and gas companies for damages had been ruled legal by the Oklahoma Supreme Court just prior, in the 2015 case Ladra v. New Dominion LLC. In class-action lawsuit Cooper v. New Dominion LLC, et al, she sued several oil companies for damage done to her home and to those in the nine counties surrounding Prague. A settlement of $925,000 was reached in 2018, which after attorney fees and expenses left about $472,500 to be divided among the claimants. Given estimates that there may be as many as 1000 affected property owners, this leaves very little money: less than $500 per property owner. Next to the meager compensation, lawsuits might not be enough to achieve environmental justice for two reasons. First, they only award compensation after the fact, and do not require oil and gas companies to limit the risk of earthquakes. Secondly, they put the burden of proof on those who suffered damage, rather than on the industry causing the damage. To be eligible for any form of compensation, cases need to be started after every damage-causing quake. Affected residents then must file their claims before the deadline, including documentation and estimates of their damage. Those who are not able to do so per definition won’t be compensated, which leaves the less resilient especially unprotected.

Initiatives to change this and hold industry more structurally accountable have sprung up. Its members speak up in town hall meetings, organize protests, disseminate information, and start lawsuits. Critically, these groups consist of both national organizations, such as the National Resources Defense Council and Public Justice, and local grassroots initiatives such as Stop Fracking Payne County. Initiatives like the latter, relying on and further building broad consensus among the local population, are particularly important, but not easy to achieve in a state historically so intertwined with oil and gas development. Residents overall have a high tolerance for oil and gas development, and tend to connect it to jobs and economic benefits rather than environmental damage or boom and bust cycles. Because of this prevalent positive narrative, even those worried about the industry’s bad effects don’t want to appear “anti-oil”. But with the industry’s negative effects hitting people directly, with no end in sight, public opinion is shifting. According to Oklahoma State environmental sociologist Tamara Mix, “despite how deeply embedded the oil and gas industry is in Oklahoma’s history, economy, politics, and culture, its stature is being shaken today - quite literally - not because of concerns over human or environmental health, but because as the problem of induced seismicity grows, people’s houses have begun to crack and crumble” (Mix & Raynes, p. 179).

Given that pressure on the state to protect citizens from the oil and gas industry’s harmful effects is mounting, what developments might be expected? It’s likely to be a mixed bag. A landmark lawsuit by the Sierra Club and Public Justice, Sierra Club v. Chesapeake Operating LLC et al., requesting oil companies to reduce injections and reinforce vulnerable buildings, as well as the establishment of an independent earthquake monitoring center, was dismissed in court. But Paul Bland, Executive Director at Public Justice, noted the silver lining: “I had the impression that the state began regulating the industry more seriously, at least in part to undermine the legal argument for our lawsuits.  When we started, the state said ‘we have no authority at all,’ and then the legislature passed a bill and they began to regulate”. Michael Wines, New York Times journalist, offered another reason for the state’s increased regulatory activity: a swarm of earthquakes in January 2016 caused damage and power outages in Edmond, where many of the state’s political elite live. Increased pressure by public interest groups, and possibly also more narrow-minded self-interest, have indeed seen regulation increase throughout 2016 and 2017. The OCC started imposing limits on wastewater injection in the most earthquake-prone regions of central and Northeastern Oklahoma, requiring cutbacks by 40%. The measures were followed by a continued decrease in the number of earthquakes. This, however, is where the good news stops: state seismologist Jake Walter expects the induced earthquakes to rattle Oklahoma for at least another decade, noting that the OGS still does not have the resources to adequately monitor these quakes. Neither the state legislature nor the OCC are planning any additional measures to address this. Nor will the state do anything to help Oklahomans receive compensation for suffered damage. The few existing proposals, predominantly introduced by representatives from the Democratic minority, die quietly in committees, such as a 2016 bill that would create a functional earthquake insurance market (compared to the current one that has racked in $135 million in premiums but only paid out $4.5 million in compensation). Finally, indirect consequences, such as (mental) health problems caused by stress and anxiety accompanying the constant risk of earthquakes, have been given no attention, despite these problems being common. This is especially worrying given Oklahomans’ almost non-existent access to health care: these consequences, too, primarily hit poorer, less resilient communities. Thus, much remains to be done to achieve environmental justice in Oklahoma. With national attention waning along with the decrease in record-strength earthquakes, change will likely have to be propelled locally.

Part 2: Groningen

Groningen, in the Northeast of The Netherlands

Despite its similar economic weight in the region, gas is not nearly as intertwined with Groningen’s history and culture as it is with Oklahoma’s. When discovered in 1959 on farmer Boon’s land, he remarked: “I suppose that’s how it’s going to have to be, then”, a response that reflected the overall province’s unenthusiastic though not antagonistic stance. On the one hand, residents were worried about drilling taking place so close to their farms and towns. On the other hand, they hoped that the gas boom would bring much-needed jobs and investment to the region and so alleviate high unemployment and poverty rates. In contrast, the Dutch government charged ahead enthusiastically: as opposed to the US, all underground minerals and natural resources are owned by the state, not by the individuals who own the surface. Foreseeing a major source of government revenue, it jump-started extraction through a public-private partnership with the Dutch Oil Company, NAM (consisting of Shell and ExxonMobil). But as estimates of the size of the gasfield and accordingly revenue for the state and NAM grew, so did Groningen’s frustration.

Grievances started small: the Dutch government initially planned to situate the headquarters of the Dutch Gas Union in the West, far away from Groningen, it promised but never delivered on discounts on gas bills for Groningen residents, and decided to make the Western city of Hilversum, rather than the region of Groningen, the first to be connected to the new Dutch gas network. These turned out not to be isolated events, but rather themes to recur often in the decades to come: a loss of voice and a bafflingly small share in the wealth their gas brought the Netherlands. The fate of the to date €417 bn. (about $470 bn.) the Dutch state has earned through gas revenue is decided upon centrally, and very few national politicians have advocated for or even bothered to visit the region. With Groningers being relegated to little more than “gas station attendants” with ignored voices, as a local newspaper described it, it may come as little surprise that the share they have received over the years is infinitesimally small. New ports and high-speed railways have sprung up along the prosperous urban west coast of the Netherlands, also called the Randstad, where the main Dutch cities lie, while a fast rail connection to Groningen in the country’s rural Northeast fell through. Over the years, 88% of major investments financed through gas revenue were made in the West. A mere 1% made its way back to Groningen.

To make matters worse, their gas did not just bring Groningen very little in benefits, it also started imposing significant costs on the region. Already in 1972, a classified report by the NAM showed that Groningen’s soil was sinking due to gas extraction - up to a metre, or three feet, by 2050. When the report leaked, the NAM reassured Groningen that “no damage will occur - there shall be no fractures as earthquakes would cause”. Those earthquakes, however, followed suit as gas production intensified from 1975 on. At first they were infrequent and small, causing little damage. As the frequency and magnitude of the quakes grew in the historically seismically inactive region, however, citizens started becoming worried and frustrated with the government’s lack of response and transparency. The NAM initially denied the link between drilling and earthquakes, calling it “nonsense” and “fairytales”. As their frequency and inflicted damage as well as pressure from a group of independent scientists increased, the NAM changed tunes in the 1990s. It now acknowledged the connection, and instead sought to reassure the public with the message that “some temporary inconveniences might result, but never any permanent damage”.

That permanent damage does occur became undeniable in 2012, when an earthquake with a magnitude of 3.6 shook the Groninger village of Huizinge. The Groningen gas field lies close to the boggy surface, so even lighter quakes cause substantial damage: 2235 claims, consisting of cracked walls, collapsed barns, and foundations that no longer were safe. Almost a hundred quakes followed that year, and continued throughout the following years. Monumental, historic farmsteads propped up by massive wooden beams, sagging and with crumbling facades, became a familiar if not less distressing sight. As of 2018, over 1,000 earthquakes later, 200,000 people are estimated to have incurred damage, a full half of whom incurred it multiple times. Total costs of the damage run as high as €8 bn. The constant quakes, combined with the perpetual fear of heavier, more damaging quakes, feeling unsafe in their own homes, and frustration about the slow, never-ending bureaucracy of getting compensation have caused health problems among 8000 adults in the region, with the risk of depression and anxiety disorders 2 to 3 times higher than the national average for those who’ve experienced multiple instances of damage. A recent study by the University of Groningen also found high levels of fear, anxiety, and distrust of the government among children in the region. Professor Postmes, founder of the research project Groningen’s Perspective, summarized gas extraction’s multifaceted consequences: “[they] involve much more than bricks and dollars: The earthquake problem is a highly complex legal and administrative tangle. There is a lot of distrust, unrest and stress. The area's heritage and identity are at stake”.

A historic house in Wirdum, Groningen, propped up and undergoing repairs for damage caused by earthquakes

Given the staggering profits both the NAM and the Dutch state have made from Groningen’s gas, and the damage they caused while extracting it, it doesn’t seem more than fair that local residents should at least be compensated. This, again, goes back to the principle of environmental justice: the burdens and benefits of gas extraction should be spread evenly, if necessary through compensation, and all impacted communities should have a voice in the decision to drill, subsequent regulation, and, should damage occur, compensation. Both currently are sorely lacking. Groningers’ perspectives on compensation weren’t included any more than when discussing whether to drill and what to do with revenues. Compensation by the NAM has started trickling in, but much of it following the motto “too little, too late”. Groningers had, and still have, little trust in the process. Understandably so: until 2017, an agency of the NAM itself assessed the damage in inspection upon inspection, and eventually also determined the compensation the NAM would pay. To get compensation in a more timely and impartial manner, many homeowners with damages have gone to court, which often proved more successful. But particularly those who do not have the means or know-how to do so were left relying only on the help of neighbors and community organizations. By now, an independent agency, the Institute for Mining Damage Groningen, handles compensation claims. Incredulously, it does so even slower than the NAM, which has led to a 15-month backlog of cases. 20,000 houses currently aren’t safe to live in. Its occupants stay in trailers and container homes in their backyards. Some have been waiting for their houses to be reinforced or rebuilt for over seven years. According to Freek de Jonge, a Dutch writer originating from the region: “this is a national scandal (...). I fail to understand why the media and politicians aren’t prioritising this issue. All the money goes to the Randstad, and Groningen is just some little province. They’ve contributed hundreds of billions to the economy but have never been compensated for that”.

Environmental justice is still a long way off. But things are shifting, and the region has achieved some victories. The first major one was in the 1990s, when pressure from a coalition of scientists led to more research into the cause of the earthquakes and eventually the acknowledgement that gas extraction was the culprit. This cleared the way for compensation - theoretically, as according to the original 1960s provision, claimants needed to prove that earthquakes caused the damage, after which the NAM would assess the extent of the damage and appropriate compensation. Grassroots organizations and outspoken community leaders eventually managed to get this biased and inadequate provision overturned in 2017, through a combination of court cases and increasing pressure on the government through national awareness raising. The burden of proof is now with the NAM, and an independent agency, the Institute for Mining Damage Groningen, assesses the damage and appropriate compensation. A second victory: courts increasingly acknowledge the indirect consequences of gas extraction. In 2018, a Court of Appeal ruled that all property owners, not just those looking to sell their house, should be compensated for the decrease in value of their home. Although the current government plan for compensation, based on zip code, is widely regarded as insufficient, a legal basis for compensation has been laid. This increased acknowledgement extends beyond ‘bricks and dollars’. In 2017, the local District Court ruled that residents that had suffered immaterial damage, such as stress, anxiety, and loss of safe living, could sue the NAM. A current case before the Supreme Court considers whether residents can also sue for severe psychological damage - not just the NAM, but also the state.  A third victory, decisive in reducing the long-term risk of earthquakes and associated damage, was the government’s 2018 decision to end extraction completely by 2022, with a gradual decrease in drilling until then. This effort, too, was spearheaded by local groups’ efforts to bring the injustices in their backyard to national attention. Their years of outreach and awareness-raising finally started paying off: national news coverage increased significantly, more systematic research into the quakes, including their societal and psychological consequences, appeared, and opposition leaders in the Dutch parliament started asking critical questions. This eventually led Prime Minister Rutte and the responsible Minister Eric Wiebes to apologize for the “governmental failure of un-Dutch proportions” and end production.

Hundreds of activists at a gas site in Farmsum, Groningen

While Groningen’s citizens still face daily risks of earthquakes (and will face these for years to come), exasperatingly slow compensation procedures, and associated strains on their health that are not being addressed systematically, the “gas polemic” (as it has come to be called in the Netherlands) is at long last starting to be acknowledged and worked on.

Part 3: Lessons Learned

Despite some apparent differences (such as in legal context and technique causing the earthquakes: Groningen’s earthquakes are caused by conventional drilling, Oklahoma’s by the injection of wastewater), the two earthquake-ridden regions share many characteristics. In both cases, the gas industry causes damage through earthquakes, the costs of which fall on local residents. The industry makes a profit, and so has a stake in continuing drilling/injecting while leaving others to shoulder the costs. The state, which is supposed to protect its citizens, also profits (directly through royalties or indirectly through job creation, taxes, and economic growth), and thus is reluctant to step in. The result: local citizens suffer environmental injustice and an uphill battle against a powerful alliance of industry and state to change this. Moreover, both Groningen and Oklahoma are poorer, rural, and often ignored regions that can’t necessarily count on a national outcry or much coverage by journalists or researchers. Taken together, this makes the experiences of Groningen, which has been grappling with drilling-induced subsidence and earthquakes since the 1990s an invaluable source of knowledge for Oklahoma. 

Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from the Groningen case is the importance of research. Both in Groningen and Oklahoma, the connection between gas drilling and earthquakes was long ignored, denied, and downplayed - especially in Oklahoma, the latter still happens frequently. The industry had a clear stake in avoiding any responsibility for the damage, but the region’s respective governments also played their part in denying the link through statements, alternative studies, and in the case of Oklahoma, cooperation with industry to intimidate scientists. But despite these obstacles, research proved crucial: geological research that showed earthquakes to be caused by drilling and wastewater disposal opened the door for compensation, both in Oklahoma and Groningen.

The case of Groningen also proved, however, that this isn’t enough. Despite the link being clear, compensation came in slowly and sparingly, and no structural measures were taken to reduce the risks of earthquakes. This was at least in part because nobody knew exactly how many people were impacted, what the total damage was, and what other consequences the earthquakes might have - which enables narratives downplaying the damage, and hinders sound policy to structurally help residents. The extent of the damage, as well as that of the myriad number of their indirect consequences (such as massive mental health problems, also among kids, loss of trust in government, a collapse of the housing market, and a threat to the region’s cultural heritage), was only mapped by social psychologists Tom Postmes and Katherine Stroebe over recent years. It shows the burden of gas extraction for Groningen residents to be much higher than previously assumed - which residents had been saying for years, but now also was supported by data. It also evaluates what policies to limit and compensate damage work, and which ones don’t. In all this, Postmes and Stroebe work together with local residents, grassroots organizations, and local politicians. This doesn’t just contribute to better policies, but also, finally, to making locals feel heard. Setting up similar research projects in Oklahoma could have the same effects and contribute to an informed, rather than politicized conversation.

In both Groningen and Oklahoma, activism surged in recent years. Neither region, with no anti-oil and gas or general anti-industry sentiments to speak of, was a likely place for these protests. Demonstrations, media statements, and campaigns to pressure the government (in both cases with a stake in continued reduction, thus reluctant to interfere) into action only took off when people’s houses started shaking. And in both regions, rural, relatively poor, and far away, the protests didn’t capture nearly the large-scale attention they merited. In Groningen, where protests and organizing started years earlier, this is finally changing. National politicians and media are paying attention, and academics do not just study the region’s earthquakes, but also how its citizens organize against them. This makes Groningen’s activism particularly interesting to Oklahomans: how did its citizens organize to achieve environmental justice, and what might work in Oklahoma, too?

In Groningen, many affected residents spoke up and raised awareness in any way possible. They spoke with journalists, local and international, published a book and documentary series, ‘I Wait’, portraying the stories of 101 residents waiting for compensation, and a local group of children put on a play about the gas polemic, attended by locals, politicians, and NAM and Shell representatives alike. They bring the Groningers’ plight much closer to the Dutch public than any factual reports ever could. Perhaps most famous is Annemarie Heite, who informally became the region’s spokeswoman after she and her family starred in a documentary, ‘The Silent Quake’. Since, she’s appeared on many talk shows, spoken with countless journalists, and even ran for the Dutch Upper Chamber in March 2019. Charismatic, assertive, eloquent, and well-connected in the region, she speaks and connects people tirelessly, and rather effectively, to raise awareness. Word by word, story by story, these Groningers made knowledge and indignation among the public and the opposition grow until the government could no longer ignore injustice. 

In Oklahoma, up to date, personal accounts are very sparse - the few that exist mostly appear in court case recordings rather than in more widely read newspapers or magazines. Local researchers noted that it was difficult to find anyone willing to speak on the record, even when using pseudonyms. This likely is due to the prevalent role the oil and gas industry plays in employment and public life, making people reluctant to appear anti-oil. Having a few community leaders like Heite would make a big difference: they could give the earthquake tragedy a human face, break the taboo, and connect the media to others in their community wishing to speak up.

Speaking up is important, at some times particularly: researchers studying activism in Groningen found that the timing of outreach matters. They found that shortly after ‘trigger events’, such as a particularly heavy earthquake, the publication of a damning research report, or a clear case of government-industry collusion, media coverage on the region spiked. Not just on the specific event, but also on the underlying gas polemic. And until industry or the government contained the situation by making reforms, coverage would remain high. This gave Groningers a platform to speak about their experiences, and forced industry and the government to respond. In Oklahoma, where denial and delay by the government and industry are common practice, these trigger events can be particularly important. Trigger events give advocacy groups the opportunity to raise awareness and increase pressure for reform. The better they are prepared for it (e.g. by designating spokespersons, collecting personal stories, preparing op-eds and maintaining a volunteer network), the longer they’ll likely be able to sustain this momentum.

A third lesson from Groningen is that residents themselves need to take the initiative in order to receive any compensation at all - and that simply not everyone is able to do so. Until an independent institute took over the assessment of damage in 2018, Groningers had to claim compensation from the NAM in a process that was bewilderingly complex, endless, and featured unequal power relations, or go to court (the process still is problematic, but at least less so now). But those without the resources to do so, those who aren’t as assertive or get lost in the bureaucratic maze, can get stuck and eventually get no or far too little compensation. That way, it’s the least resilient who most often end up shouldering the damage. To help everyone claim compensation, Groningers set up informal and formal support networks, such as Justice for Groningen. They help each other with finding legal assistance, organize meetings to exchange ideas and advice, and provide support wherever they can. A recent study found that Groningers were extraordinarily active in taking such measures. This way, compensation became far more accessible, even in the absence of an institutional system that guarantees compensation for everyone. In Oklahoma, where institutional guarantees are less likely still, this is all the more important. Next to informal exchanges between neighbours, larger organized initiatives that help pay for legal assistance and organize forums to share information and practical tips are particularly useful.

Local farmers in Oosterwijtwerd, Groningen, wave at activists on their way to a protest at a nearby gas site

In Groningen, all these undertakings, from research and amplifying Groningers’ voices to practical help, were supported and enabled by a particularly active civil society, such as the Groningen Ground Movement, Groningen Gas Deliberation, and Keep Groningen Standing. This was only possible due to its broad support among the Groninger public. Organizations mostly are, and certainly feel, distinctly Gronings, rather than external. Its members and initiators are predominantly locals, there not as part of a larger political cause, but to listen to and help residents deal with the gas polemic. This means that rather than politicizing issues in line with some broader cause (“the VVD [the ruling party] doesn’t care about rural provinces, it’s an elite coastal party that’s only for the rich, with the gas polemic being another example. Bring it down!”), civil society organizations listen to those affected and amplify their voices (“this is the damage industry causes, here’s how the state doesn’t protect us against it, and what we need instead”). The result is a debate that’s pragmatic and solutions-oriented, and much less likely to end in political gridlock. This certainly isn’t to say that there’s no urgency or frustration in their rhetoric, but their message puts residents’ needs and concerns first. Groningen differs from Oklahoma in several ways that make a solution-oriented civil society with broad support more likely: very few people benefit from gas extraction, with few jobs and no royalties coming from it. Moreover, the industry isn’t part of culture or education. And although the gas industry is very cozy with the Dutch state, its campaign contributions and revolving door politics don’t nearly approach American levels. This makes it all the more important to further grow Oklahoma’s civil society. Ideally by a coalition of locals, but more importantly, reflective of local concerns. Whether such an organization conducts research, raises awareness, or provides practical and legal assistance, its underlying aim should be listening to and addressing locals’ concerns. Groningers and Oklahomans alike have been ignored by their governments too long for civil society, no matter how good its intentions, to do the same.

Further reading

Mix, T. L., & Raynes, D. K. T. (2018). Denial, disinformation, and delay: Recreancy and induced seismicity in Oklahoma’s shale plays. In A. E. Ladd (ed.), Fractured Communities (pp. 173-197). Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Postmes, T. (2018, January 17). Fear and trembling in Groningen. Retrieved from https://mindwise-groningen.nl/fear-and-trembling-in-groningen/

Raimi, D. (2017). The fracking debate: The risks, benefits, and uncertainties of the shale revolution. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.