The Netherlands: The Gas Battle

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On the wind-whipped Waddenzee Islands of The Netherlands last week, battered landing craft disgorged load after load of equipment and intense men from as far away as Texas, Kuwait and Brunei. Growling Land-Rovers raced up and down sandy stretches recently surrendered by vacationing Dutchmen; helicopters whirred overhead. The invaders represented some of the 24 oil companies that are gunning for a share of the world's second largest natural gas deposit (after Texas). The Dutch government conservatively estimates that 1,100 billion cubic meters of gas bubbles under the Waddenzee Islands and the northern provinces. Others reckon that the fields contain five times that amount.

Though The Netherlands was long thought to have no natural resources to speak of, promising pockets of gas were discovered by Esso and Shell on the mainland four years ago in the course of a search for oil. The Dutch government, shrewdly invoking a vague Napoleonic law of 1810 that claims all underground natural resources as state property, forced the two oil companies into a state-dominated consortium called NAM (for Nederlandsche Aardolie Maatschappij). The government takes 73% of its income, leaves 27% for Esso and Shell, and so far has granted every natural gas concession to NAM. Lately rumors of huge finds on the islands have brought other companies rushing in with hopes of getting a piece or prospecting offshore.

The gas war has its comic aspects. On Ameland Island in the Waddenzee group, half the rooms in the tiny Hofker Hotel are occupied by NAM, half by Caltex. After dinner, each side glares at the other in the lobby; at night, the prospectors push their beds across their doors to guard maps and working papers. After technicians from Socony Mobil Oil checked into the adjacent Hotel De Jong, scouts from Caltex and NAM began to frequent the De Jong bar, hoping to pick up valuable slips of the tongue. Last week British Petroleum and a party of French seismologists also landed.

Regardless of which company comes out ahead, the Dutch are bound to gain. Some of the gas will be used to fuel new aluminum and ammonia industries in The Netherlands, and about 15 billion cubic meters will be exported yearly to prop a narrowly unfavorable balance of trade. Gas will also replace the country's meager supply of coal as consumer fuel. As a result of the finds, gas prices for Dutch householders are to be lowered 25% next month.