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Groningen gas production challenged in Dutch court

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Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 14.32.29THE HAGUE, SEPT 10 | BY TOBY STERLING

(Reuters) – A Dutch high court on Thursday began hearing complaints from groups seeking to reduce or stop gas production at the Groningen gas field, Europe’s largest, to reduce the danger of earthquakes.

No date has been set for a ruling by the Council of State, but a court official said it would likely come in late autumn.

Work at Groningen has become increasingly controversial as earthquakes linked to it have become more intense, causing billions of euros of damage to buildings.

No physical injuries have been reported from the quakes, the largest of which was 3.6 on the Richter scale, but the country’s Safety Board in February determined that the government had systematically underestimated the danger to citizens.

“This is a risk that could be taken away in three or four months with a very simple measure: turn off the gas,” lawyer Rens Snel of the City of Groningen told judges hearing the case.

The court, which allows citizens to challenge government decisions, is hearing complaints from 40 groups ranging from the provincial government to small towns and individuals.

Technically, they are asking the court to overturn the government’s 2015 production plans.

The government and Groningen’s operator, NAM, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil Corp., , are expected to respond on Thursday, according to a court spokeswoman.

Representatives of Economics Minister Henk Kamp are expected to argue that the government is cutting production as fast as it reasonably can while honouring its legal obligations to deliver gas to millions of citizens in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

Lawyer Snel argued that supply contracts do not have legal priority over a government’s duty to guarantee the safety of its citizens.

Kamp has cut production to 30 billion cubic metres (bcm) this year from an initial target of 39.4 bcm, following the censure from the Safety Board.

He is due to set 2016 production plans in January.

In April, a preliminary ruling by the court in the same case ordered a halt to gas production around Loppersum, the most earthquake sensitive portion of the vast Groningen field, unless absolutely necessary.

($1 = 0.8928 euros) (Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by Anthony Deutsch and Jason Neely)

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