Shale gas in the Netherlands: Key industry updates III

08 September 2014

In our previous updates regarding the developments of shale gas in the Netherlands, we reported that the Minister of Economic Affairs has published an overview of the next steps to be taken before he makes a final decision on allowing shale gas exploration in the Netherlands.[1] Meanwhile, the first step has actually been taken. On 28 May 2014, the Draft Memorandum on the Scope and Detail of the Environmental Research into Shale Gas (hereinafter: Draft Memorandum) has been published. This Draft Memorandum sets out which subjects will be investigated and which areas will be covered by the environmental impact assessment. In this update, we will briefly analyse the Draft Memorandum.  

Background

The Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs is investigating whether to allow the exploration of shale gas in the Netherlands. Dutch law requires, a prudent investigation before such a decision can be made, therefore, a so-called 'structure vision' must first be prepared. In this structure vision a long term spatial planning strategy is being developed. The Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and the Minister of Infrastructure and Environment are currently preparing this vision. The final decision on allowing shale gas exploration in the Netherlands will be based on this analysis. An environmental impact assessment (so-called plan MER) will form the basis of the structure vision. The first step, however, was to prepare a memorandum regarding the scope and level of detail, setting out the topics that will be investigated and the areas which will be covered by the environmental impact assessment. A draft of this memorandum has now been published.

Draft Memorandum on the Scope and Detail of the Environmental Research

The Draft Memorandum consists of six chapters: the reason and purpose of the structure vision (chapter 1), the environmental impact assessment procedure (chapter 2); delineation of the relevant areas (chapter 3); types of landscape and a fictive model example of shale gas extraction (chapter 4); approach to the environmental assessment, i.e. methodology (chapter 5) and the purpose and necessity (chapter 6).

It follows from the Draft Memorandum that:

  • The planning area is restricted in advance by excluding a number of sites where shale gas extraction is prohibited by law (for example areas where drinking water is extracted), areas with a shortage of physical space and areas for which a license is unrealistic (for example urban areas (1500 addresses or more within one square kilometres) or Natura 2000 sites);
  • Other areas in which shale gas exploration is debatable and/or not without risk (for example UNESCO world heritage or areas with nuclear energy) are not excluded beforehand, but will be looked at individually. Most of the time, these are small scale locations which can, therefore, be easily circumvented by alternative locations;
  • The remaining areas will be grouped according to landscape types, as these types are distinctive for the effects that occur due to shale gas extraction. The nine types of landscape distinguished are: polders (drained lakes), waters, hills, peat colonies, coastal area, low peat area, river area, sandy area and clay area. These nine types will be assessed on environmental effects if shale gas exploration would take place;
  • On the basis of this assessment a further distinction will be made into areas, such a distinction between East or West Brabant, Southern of Limburg etc.;
  • Finally, an analysis of potential advantages and disadvantages for the local communities will be conducted.    

Criticism

The most striking point following from the Draft Memorandum is that certain areas (such as Natura 2000 areas) are excluded beforehand from the environmental impact assessment. However, this is the case with regard to the two-dimensional planning system (2D) only. These areas are not excluded with regard to the three-dimensional planning system (3D).

This point has been criticized by politicians and interest groups, but also by the Supervisory Committee. This Committee has been set up in order to ensure the research carried out by the Ministry is independent and of high quality.  The Committee indicated that the Minister's reasons for the inclusion of the areas with regard to 3D are limited, especially given the far-reaching implications. According to the Minister, shale gas can be drilled horizontally. As a result, activities which seem to clash from a 2D-point of view, do not automatically clash from a 3D-point of view, as they take place in separate layers. Taking the 3D perspective into account, more opportunities are created for the implementation of underground activities. Therefore, a boundary of 1000 metres in depth has been set for the excluded areas.  This means that no activities can take place from a 2D-point of view, while from a 3D-perspective they can only be carried out from 1000 metres deep and further. It has been indicated that beneath 1000 metres no drinking water reserves are present, whereas above 1000 metres there are no shale gas layers.

Consultation

The Draft Memorandum was open for consultation between 29 May and 9 July 2014. During the consultation period, the Minister also sought advice from legal advisors (the Agency of cultural heritage, the Inspection for the Environment and the Director of Regional Affairs of the Ministry of Economic Affairs) and from administrative bodies, including the relevant authorities in Germany and Belgium.

The Province of Antwerp has already indicated that it does not support shale gas exploration near its borders. According to the Province of Antwerp, many subterranean drinking water reservations are located near the border with the Netherlands and there is a large concentration of farms in the area which use groundwater as drinking water for livestock. The Province of Antwerp has, therefore, a negative view towards shale gas within the Netherlands.

The North Rhine-Westphalian Minister for the Environment, Johannes Remmel, agrees with the Province of Antwerp. Remmel has major concerns about the injection of chemicals into the soil in particular: taking risks which are involved in the exploration would be irresponsible. Remmel requested that the Dutch Minister keeps him updated with regard to the developments in the Netherlands. As a result, the Ministers decided to set up a reciprocal process of dialogue. This will be a platform where experts and consultants can meet to exchange information and discuss cross-border issues.

Next steps

In the final version of the Draft Memorandum the Minister takes into account all views, comments and opinions submitted during the consultation phase. As soon as this final version is finished, the environmental impact assessment will take place. The environmental impact assessment and the draft structure vision will both be presented to Parliament at the beginning of 2015. It will then, again, be possible for the public to submit their views, comments and opinions to the draft structure vision.

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