Polish miners, power workers, protest shift away from coal

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Some four thousand Polish coal mining and power workers protested in Warsaw Wednesday against the gradual phasing out of coal extraction and use and against a European Union court order to immediately close down a mine.

Trade unions organizing the protest with banners and noisy horns said Europe’s shift from coal — which is abundant in Poland but polluting — towards renewable energy will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs in the country.

The protesters also argued that the policy would threaten Poland’s energy security and make the country dependent on fuel and power imports from Germany and Russia.

“We are threatened with the loss of energy sovereignty if we close our mines, our power plants and will be forced to import power,” said Krzysztof Gonerski, head of a Solidarity union chapter at the ENEA energy company in Gorzow Wielkopolski.

“Tens of thousands of good jobs will be eliminated. We are protesting against that,” Gonerski told The Associated Press.

He said wind and solar energy are not enough to substitute for coal, while the only viable option is nuclear energy.

“But Germany is already saying it will not allow a nuclear power plant near its border, so we will have to import expensive energy from Germany, from France,” Gonerski said.

He said the EU is ruled by “ecoterrorists” who are not really aware of the situation.

The demonstrators accuse the right-wing government of caving in to EU demands and charting out the timetable for the full closure of mines by 2049. Energy experts say that will happen much sooner, because Poland’s coal mines are becoming increasingly deeper and costlier, making extraction unviable. Some users are already importing cheaper coal, including from Russia.

Wednesday’s protest was spurred by an order last month from a top EU court for Poland to immediately halt operation of the Turow brown coal mine that feeds the Turow power plant, the source of some 7% percent of Poland’s energy. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit by the neighboring Czech Republic which says the mine is draining water from its border villages.

Also Wednesday, in a boost to the Czech complaint, the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said it will support Prague’s case against Poland to demand Turow’s closure, before the EU Court of Justice, Poland’s state news agency PAP said, quoting commission spokeswoman Vivian Loonela.

Poland has not stopped the Turow mine, that belongs to the state PGE energy group, arguing it would cut power to over 2 million households and would have a negative effect on the European power grid. It insists that the court did not have full information on the situation while taking its decision, which is temporary, pending a full ruling that can take many months. Warsaw is holding intensive talks with Prague seeking to settle the matter out of court.

“I cannot imagine Turow being closed, it is too important in Poland’s grid,” Gonerski said, stressing that the Czech Republic and Germany operate a number of lignite mines in the same area.

On Tuesday, authorities in the central Lodz province and PGE announced that Europe’s biggest brown coal power plant in Belchatow will be phased out between 2030-2036, and its mine will close in 2038.

The announcement was celebrated by environmental groups. The plan to phase out coal will allow the Lodz region to seek means from the EU Just Transition Fund for regions most hit by the switch away from coal.

The Belchatow mine and its 11-unit power plant are the region’s biggest employers, offering some 10,000 jobs. Lignite, or brown coal, is lighter and softer than black coal but more polluting.

Formerly coal-driven, Poland has taken strides in embracing renewable energy sources.

Of over 70 coal mines and almost 400,000 miners it had in 1990, it now has some 20 mines and fewer that 80,000 miners, and is planning further cuts. At the same time the solar energy sector boomed in the past two years thanks to government and local subsidies and wind energy is developing, despite some recent legislative obstacles. There are plans for a nuclear power plant to start operations around 2035, but crucial decisions as to the technology, partnership and financing still need to be taken.

Still, Poland is always negotiating its own terms and timetables for phasing out coal and the EU and environmental groups say the changes are too slow and the plans not ambitious enough to meet the bloc’s goals of greenhouse gas reductions.