‘If Groningen were a Chinese province, it would have been expropriated a long time ago’

There’s been a lot of talk in the Netherlands recently about abandoning the use of natural gas. China is lagging years behind in that respect. In China, we’re all encouraged to stop using coal. With good reason, of course. Who in this day and age would still want to use coal?

The motivation in the Netherlands seems to be two-fold, though. On one hand, there’s the CO2 emissions, a problem we’ve all been trying to deal with for a while, and on the other hand, there are the earthquakes in the province of Groningen, caused by local gas drilling activities.

Hardly surprising that earthquakes occur when something is taken away from the earth and nothing is put back in that place. You’re left with some sort of vacuum. Nature has no problem sorting it all out again, but not without some inevitable shaking of the earth’s surface.

One solution would be to fill the empty space with CO2. That’s only a short-term solution, though. Underground CO2 storage comes with quite a few disadvantages. CO2 isn’t an inert gas; it reacts differently to its environment than natural gas. Which causes its own problems. Furthermore, the burial of waste, which is what CO2 is in the end, is just as old-fashioned as burning coal.

In principle, natural gas is much cleaner than coal. But also much more expensive. We should of course be looking into alternatives for fossil fuels, but at the moment it feels like the call for a halt to all gas drillings in Groningen is mostly caused by the earthquakes. A feasible alternative might be geothermal heat. I’m not too familiar with this technique, but I can imagine that, in addition to the initial, hefty investment, there might be some other snags to this, too. What happens underground, when you pump up hot water and replace it with cold? I know that I can only do that with my heat storage tanks as long as I make sure the pressure is properly regulated.

Over here in China, I’d be more than happy shovelling all the coal on a big heap instead of into the boilers. I’d love to switch to natural gas. More and more factories are currently being told to do so. Coal-fired boilers are only allowed these days if flue gases are treated sufficiently.

You don’t hear much about coal ash yet, but I’d say that’s only a matter of time. You can’t, and wouldn’t want to, dispose of coal ash in the ground any more: 1. because we don’t have any tippers here, 2. because everything you put in the ground is going to come up somewhere at some stage, and 3. because it actually contains quite a few nasty elements.

China depends on other countries for natural gas and is still lacking a large network of transportation pipes. But they’re working on it. If Groningen were a Chinese province, it would have been expropriated a long time ago and the focus would be entirely on gas extraction. As long as there wasn’t a nuclear power station in the area, the Chinese wouldn’t be too bothered about a few light earthquakes.

Cok Harteveld,

General manager Van den Berg RoseS, China

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