Dutch gas - an underground godsend
A godsend for the Dutch was how the international press saw it in 1959. The Netherlands had found hidden treasure underground: natural gas.
On 29 May, half a century ago, exploratory drilling began near the village of Slochteren in the northern province of Groningen. There was an underground treat in store for the Netherlands that would change the country for good.
The quantity of gas underfoot in the northern provinces of Groningen and Drenthe was to exceed the Netherlands’ wildest dreams. Holding at least 2700 billion cubic metres of gas, at the time it was the largest gas field ever discovered. And as the gas was contained in a single continuous field, it was relatively easy to extract.
Suddenly the Netherlands had billions of gas guilders to spend. Henk Vonhoff, Groningen’s former Royal Commissioner, analyses it as follows: “The Netherlands = Belgium + natural gas.” Without it, who knows whether the country would have had its Betuwe freight railway, its Delta sea defences, its high-speed rail link, or its social security benefit. Healthcare and defence have also flourished thanks to the goldmine in the north. For ordinary people, life became more comfortable – for companies, more profitable. From the 1960s, the government embarked on one showpiece project after another.
In the 1980s, the tide turned. The government was accused of ‘budgetary laziness’. Some said it was frittering the money away on structural budget items like the country’s generous social security system. The government should tighten the purse strings, they said.
Nevertheless, the gas fields remain the Netherlands biggest money-spinner, to the tune of an estimated 10 billion euros a year. And with a bit of luck, they will remain so for decades.
The pipelines are coming!
Corine van Dun grew up in Drunen, in the southern province of Brabant. She remembers the 1950s only too well. She would have been about 8 or 9. Her job in the house was to keep the coal fire burning.
“Not so terrible in itself, but sometimes in the winter you hated having to keep going out to the coal shed. Fill the coalscuttle, lug it inside, put the coal in the stove, poke the fire, clean the grate, sweep the cinders. And above all, never let it go out.”
“On Sunday, in the village cinema, I saw a news report on pipelines heading down through the Netherlands from Groningen. Excitement! My parents had inherited some money and couldn’t decide whether to get oil-burning central heating or wait for gas. They decided to wait. I had to shovel coal for another winter. Then it was over. No more frost on the windows in freezing bedrooms, and no more black hands. The life of a child in Drunen got a lot better.”
The end of the butane tank
Els Spruit might have been young, but the event made a deep impression on her. “Total panic,” she remembers. Els and her elder brother Rinus grew up in the polder in the southern province of Zeeland.
“Uncle Gerard and Aunt Annie from Rotterdam were coming to dinner. It was the biggest day of the year. Cooking for city folk. Mother was in a state from the beginning.”
Rinus: “You usually knew when the butane tank was getting to the end because the flame would flicker. Then Mother would knock on the tank and then you could keep going for a bit. But not this time.”
Els: “Potatoes half cooked, the shop that sold the gas tanks closed on Saturday. If we’d only had natural gas. It was awful.”