(Adds reaction from NAM, quote from ruling)
By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM, April 20 A Dutch court ordered
prosecutors to open an investigation on Thursday into whether a
Shell-Exxon joint venture bears any criminal responsibility for
earthquakes triggered by production at the country's largest gas
No physical injuries have been caused by numerous small
quakes, which have damaged thousands of buildings and structures
across the north-eastern province of Groningen, and prosecutors
had previously declined to act, arguing it was a civil matter.
However, the Leeuwaarden-Arnhem Appeals Court directed them
to open an investigation, saying they had not looked carefully
enough at whether a crime could be proved.
The government was formally censured by the country's Safety
Board after a magnitude 3.6 quake hit the town of Huizinge in
2012. This was larger than had been deemed possible by NAM, the
Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil joint venture
that oversees production at Groningen.
"The court observes that there is evidence that the NAM is
culpable of...damaging buildings with threat to human life," the
court said in Thursday's ruling.
NAM, which has accepted civil responsibility for damage
caused by the quakes and is paying damages of more than 1
billion euros ($1.1 billion), said in a statement it was
surprised by the decision over Groningen, which was discovered
in 1959 and is one of the world's largest gas fields.
"In earlier rulings, prosecutors and the court have
continually found that there was no reason for prosecution," it
said, adding that investigations do not automatically lead to
charges being brought.
NAM spokesman Hein Dek declined any further comment.
Earlier this week, the Dutch government said it will again
cut output at the field to lessen the risk posed by quakes, the
fourth such move since the Safety Board's pivotal February 2015
report said authorities had ignored potential risks at Groningen
for decades and were putting lives in danger.
Output at Groningen has been steeply reduced from 53.9
billion cubic meters in 2013 to a maximum of 24 billion cubic
meters on an annual basis at present; in October that will be
further cut to 21.6 bcm.
($1 = 0.9296 euros)
(Editing by David Evans and Alexander Smith)