… but a full-fledged post-coal just transition strategy is still ‘under construction’.

In 2021, the Czech Republic sued Poland over water losses caused by the Turów Brown Coal Mine located in the Polish-Czech-German borderland. In 2022, both countries reached an agreement, which was welcomed in Poland, but heavily criticized by local activists in Czechia, who call it ineffective in terms of underground water protection and other protective measures. The Czech side is also unhappy with the planned enlargement of the open mine in the direction of the Czech border and settlements by the border.

The Turów mine is an opencast mine that started operating in 1904. Between 1908 and 1945, it served mainly as provider of brown coal for the Hirschfelde power plant on the other bank of the Lusatian Neisse. In 1945, the mine was first placed under the Soviet military administration and then handed over to Polish authorities in 1947. A decade later, the government of Socialist Poland decided to build a new power plant to the north of the mine, thus creating the largest mining and energy production complex in the country and one of the largest such complexes based on brown coal in Europe.

As of 2021, Turów power plant was responsible for 7 % of all energy production in Poland, supplying 4,5 million households.

The conservative neoliberal Czech cabinet of Petr Fiala (ODS) claimed that the settlement was important for good relations with Poland and its ruling party. However, it should be noted that Czechia faces the same challenges as Poland, considering coal phase-out and just transition, while coal remains an important indigenous source of energy at the time of the dispute over the mine. The dispute over Turów had, therefore, very contractionary layers, if one looked beyond simplistic national views. One could say that environmental issues clashed with socio-economic questions related to the “Green” transition and with national political contexts and their political economy, including private interests and strategic interests. The question of sovereignty, which was strongly accentuated by the Polish side, was a typical escape from much more complex realities.

The Law and Justice conservative government of Poland (PiS party), which ultimately lost power in December of 2023, claimed until the end that the mine would keep operating until 2044, when coal resources would be depleted. The new government, led by the neoliberal Civic Platform party, has not yet stated openly its plans concerning Turów.

However, the Civic Platform is favourable towards the renewable sources of energy, and brown coal is a more and more expensive source. It is possible that Turów is hence deemed unsustainable even before 2044.

For Law and Justice, Turów was a matter of ‘national dignity’. No one will dictate Poland, where and how to produce energy – the former prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki repeatedly said. He also stated that Poland would never allow the mine’s closure, no matter what consequences, including financial, could be. Interestingly, at the same time the management of state-owned PGE group (which is the owner and operator of the mine), spoke in slightly more realist terms. In 2022, they admitted that 20 years was not a long time to schedule both closure of a huge mine and starting new activities where Turów employees could find jobs. And these 20 years are even not sure, as PGE, too, is planning to invest more in renewables. What if mining a low quality coal, which is left in the Turów deposit (the best quality parts were, of course, exploited long ago), and which requires destroying one more village and paying compensations to the local people, is considered unsustainable?

These questions, never properly answered by state officials, became acute in March 2024, when the administrative court in Warsaw declared the environmental impact assessment, which served as base for the mining permit for 2026-2044, invalid. The verdict was delivered after a joint complaint filled by authorities of the German city of Zittau, claiming that mining leads to destruction of houses in the city, and by environmental foundations such as Greenpeace and Frank Bold Foundation. According to the court, the environmental impact assessment did not take into account the new circumstances that arose together with the Polish-Czech agreement, which envisaged, among others, a construction of anti-noise ground wall and an underground screen preventing waters from flowing north, towards the opencast. For PGE, the court decision is unjust and ungrounded – on 21 March the public opinion was informed that PGE would appeal from the verdict. Logically, they would then try to obtain a new mining permit valid beyond 2026.

As for local civil society, NGOs and trade unions, their positions on Turów were – and remain – divided. Groups such us local, Wrocław-based EKO-UNIA group and Greenpeace Poland both have been advocating for coal phaseout and calling for an alternative development plan for Bogatynia and the region. The spokesman of Greenpeace Poland told us in 2023 that a lack of just transition plan made the entire population of Bogatynia hostage of a mistaken energy policies. The trade unions, on the other hand, have claimed that mining ought to be continued as long as possible. They have emphasized the importance of mining and energy production for Polish economy as a whole, and felt that while just transition process should be planned, closing the mine before the resources are over would be unreasonable and socially unjust. The March 2024 court verdict was met with real anger by the unions. “Solidarność” (“Solidarity”), the biggest organization, which had unconditionally supported Law and Justice government not only in the Turów case, has already declared readiness to organize a warning strike. The leader of “Solidarność” in the mine, Wojciech Ilnicki, called the verdict ‘a surrender to eco-terrorist lobby’ and suggested that the decision had been taken in order to force Poland to import energy from Germany, including the energy produced in coal power plants.

But even if the closure of the mine in 2026 is prevented and the original closure date of 2044 comes back to the game, there is still no official complete just transition plan beyond that moment.

In 2023, the mayor of Bogatynia, Wojciech Dobrołowicz (who refused to talk to us personally) claimed that certain steps towards alternative development were taken, but still ‘there was a lot of time’ and no reason to get nervous.

He mentioned grounds prepared for investment (with an intention to welcome private businesses, but it is them who must first express willingness to come) and plans to expand photovoltaic installations and a wind energy farm. When we visited Bogatynia in the same year, the already existing photovoltaic installations contributed little to make people believe more in the future. ‘If the mine is closed, there will be nothing left’, we heard from different people during a reporting trip in 2023. Everyone – miners, small business owners or employees of these small companies – felt that Bogatynia’s future was so closely linked to the mine and the power plant that without them, the city simply could not exist anymore. ‘Have you seen any workers at the photovoltaic farm? How many jobs can be offered by them?’ I was asked by Bogumił Tyszkiewicz, leader of Independent Trade Union of Miners in Turów Mine. In another PGE-made presentation of future usage of post-mining areas, the former opencast is turned into a lake and the neighbouring grounds – into outdoor leisure spaces. The lake will certainly be here, as this is what usually happens to former opencast mines. Other installations also look fine, but hardly provide an answer to a question about jobs for most adult inhabitants of a city of 17,000 which Bogatynia is.

The same worries could be heard from neighbours on the Czech side of the border.

Despite their criticisms and active resistance to the Turów mine, local inhabitants on the Czech side expressed their fears about their Polish neighbours’ social and economic stability. The expert of Greenpeace Czech Republic, Nikol Krejčová, told us that the local people are “hostages of the coal business” and the decision to keep mining in Turów is an irresponsible step from the long-term perspective.

And there are grounds for such pessimistic thinking. Since 1945, when this small part of historical Lusatia became part of Poland and the village of Reichenau became the town of Bogatynia, all projects for development and prosperity of the region were based on coal and the mine. Modernizing the mine and construction of power plant between 1958 and 1965 was one of the greatest investments of Socialist Poland. Nobody, ever, designed any complex vision of Bogatynia not being attached to coal and energy production. Small industry which used to exist here played only an auxiliary role – and even this is now only a memory. The small factories were all closed in the course of socialism-to-market transition. The aforementioned partial plans to invest in renewables or to open up an investment zone and wait for private business to come are the only existing transition ideas coming from local or central authorities. As for Law and Justice leaders, they were vocal about not allowing to close Turów, but definitely less outspoken when it came to more detailed just transition planning. Apparently, they believed that the issue could be resolved later and that they (or PGE) still had time for it. Such short-term thinking can hardly be seen as a proof of real patriotism or thinking in terms of social welfare.

The Bogatynia region is connected with the rest of Poland only by one road (a railway line, too, did not survive the transition period, and right now there are only plans to restore it). People who do not want to move out of there are now looking for jobs in Germany (the city of Zittau is only 12 kilometres away from Bogatynia) and Czechia (which opened an industrial zone at the border). ‘Why cannot the Polish state attract an investor who could set up some new plant here? We may work in different sector than mining’, we heard from Bogumił Tyszkiewicz, clearly embittered that Polish people are pushed towards working abroad. He was also worried about earnings: if former mine and power plant employees, and also those who work for small companies – subcontractors of PGE, become an army of desperate unemployed individuals, all nearby employers, regardless of nationality, would only pay the minimum wage. As of 2022, the mine employed 2400 people, the power plant – further 1200.

Polish state officials claimed that if we add all the related small businesses and also the workers’ families, we should count more than 14,000 people whose existence depends on the Turów mine. In the media, one can even find claims that ‘tens of thousands people’ have a source of income which is in this or other way connected to Turów. It must be said, however, that none of these claims has actually been solidified by a more precise study.

What is however certain is that the mine and the power plant, by paying taxes locally, contributed greatly to the living standards in Bogatynia and the county.

According to Wojciech Dobrołowicz, the mayor of Bogatynia, they both pay 50-60 million PLN of different taxes, thus allowing the city to run a hospital (which, in Poland, rarely happens in cities of such size), seven primary schools and a secondary school, a library and culture centre as well as provide locals with cheap heating. Losing this income without getting an alternative would be a total disaster for the local budget.

Turów pays now the price of Polish authorities’ long-term unwillingness to plan the coal phaseout and think of alternatives. In 2022, coal was still the source of more than 75% of all energy produced in Poland. 27,37% of all production came from lignite, and Turów is the biggest supplier here. When in 2023 PGE presented a strategy announcing a turn towards renewables, Mateusz Morawiecki’s government pressurized the company to revoke the document. Even if PGE actually invested in renewables even under Law and Justice, it was done quietly, not to irritate the public opinion. In other regions of Poland strongly related to brown coal mining, Eastern Wielkopolska (Konin city and surroundings) and Bełchatów region, the government accepted the prospect of just transition and the local authorities were able to sketch relevant plans. In both cases, local leaders and communities (regional authorities, trade unions and business) were much more willing to unite their efforts to secure the regional future without coal than the authorities in Bogatynia region. Three factors were not without importance here. In Bełchatów, coal resources would be depleted even sooner than in Turów, namely in 2038. In Konin, the opencast mines belong to ZE PAK, a private company, which declared in 2022 that brown coal mining after 2030 would no longer be profitable. Last but not least, none of these cases gained an international fame comparable to Turów and thus did not become a matter of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national pride’.

The story of Turów has a huge relevance for the Czech Republic. While Czechia had an “environmental” role in the dispute over Turów, this country faces similar or identical problems regarding the just transition and coal phase-out.

There are three coal regions in the country, and the coal mining is distributed between the state (and the state-owned ČEZ – a Czech analogue of PGE) and private interests of so-called “uhlobarons” (oligarchs focusing on coal mining and combustion) with important influence in politics and media. Brown and hard coal still provide about 31 % of the Czech energy mix (2022), and the war in Ukraine only underlined its economic and strategic importance. Moreover, the Czech transition from coal to green(er) energy resources has been based on natural gas – which dramatically changed after February 2022 with high prices and a reshuffle of import of gas. The quick end of coal consumption (i.e. before 2033 when the government officially considers only non-energy use of coal) will seriously impact the Czech energy system and its stability, amplifying economic and social impacts in the country, which relies predominantly on energy-intensive industries. According to a study by ČEPS (a state-owned company operating the electricity transmission system in the Czech Republic), if the coal power industry ends before 2033, the Czech Republic will lack a dangerously large amount of electricity. Meanwhile, all big players in the Czech coal business are signalising that they will not mine and provide energy from the coal if such activity loses its economic rentability; there is a big question: what will quickly replace the coal?

Moreover, due to several simultaneous factors, Czechia will not face just a “just transition” related to EU policies but a much larger socio-economic transformation of its entire economic model, which is in crisis. The current neoliberal government still lacks any clear new strategy for the country and its people. Its proposals are hopelessly outdated and out of touch with the reality of the second decade of the 21st century and the real economy. For instance, the newest plan for “sustainable” growth still focuses on maintaining the model of cheap labour and proposes changes in labour law that will enable the firing of people without any stated reason. Its policy’s key “reform” aim is “budget neutral or just…relatively low costs” measures, which is just another name for fiscal austerity. This is all done without analysing the initial situation of the Czech economy, as a detailed analysis of economist Jaroslav Ungermann shows. Several efforts to continue attracting FDI to the Czech economy backfired partly because of the high energy prices or other factors (such as TSMC investment), and the newest annual report of CzechInvest notes a drop of almost half in agreed investment plans for 2022 (in comparison with 2021). The situation regarding energy policy is unclear because the new State Energy Policy (the last version is from 2015) will not be ready before 2025, as it seems now.

After all, despite rhetoric and gests, the government of Petr Fiala (ECR) represents not just the way of thinking of the 1990s but also the class interests of those time winners (and Czech uhlobarons are among them). The hastily reached agreement between Czech Republic and Poland (or, in fact, between the Polish and Czech governments) about the Turów mine in 2022 is just another example. One thing is sure. The complexity of challenges that Czechia faces will most likely require rethinking the overall strategy and corresponding policies, including the “Green” transition and energy policy. The lack of a clear strategy and the failure of future-oriented solutions (and their politically motivated postponement) is not so different from the situation in Bogatynia.

In 2021, PGE presented a complex idea of transition of the former mine area, but when in 2023 we asked their spokesperson about how much the plans were advanced, she claimed to have ‘no data’. Another project of what could replace the mine (and, consequently, also the power plant), were presented by Zgorzelecki Klaster Rozwoju Odnawialnych Źródeł Energii (Zgorzelec Union for Renewable Energy Sources Development), a local association of businesses producing green energy and related start-ups. In cooperation with engineers from Warsaw Technical University, they presented the idea of turning the openpit and the external waste heap into a pumped storage plant, while renewable energy sources (windmills and photovoltaic) could be developed around (just like PGE plans it). In this way, Bogatynia could remain a place where energy is produced and stored. However, there is a long way from an idea to a complex just transition plan, which, in addition, would need to be financed entirely by Poland itself – as the region, planning to exploit coal until 2044, could not apply for any European funding.

The court decision on the environmental impact assessment, which strongly complicated Turów’s prospects for the future, even if it is not definitive, made the topic return to Polish public debate in March 2024.

This, however, does not mean opening up a debate on just transition. Instead, the right parties attack the government for surrendering to ‘ecologists’ and to ‘German lobbies’. The trade unionists demand to keep the mine going as long as there’s any coal left, no matter how much would Poland pay or what international implications might be. The local authorities in Bogatynia share this position, claiming that the investment zone would be soon ready to welcome new businesses and that PGE would certainly offer some jobs, related to renewables, to former miners. The more ambitious projects, such as the aforementioned pumped storage plant, are not commented in public. Interestingly, and positively for the local development, the local authorities seem not to be in conflict (despite the fact that the complaint against Turów was brought to court by the city of Zittau). Days after the verdict, local leaders of Liberecky Kraj (Czechia), Zgorzelec county (Poland) and Sachsen region of Germany pledged to work together on cross-border social issues.

As for the socialdemocratic left (there’s no non-socialdemocratic left political parties in Poland playing any important role), their last statements on Turów date back to 2021-2022 Polish-Czech dispute and do not go beyond general assessments on the necessity of just transition that does not leave anyone behind. Law and Justice and other right-wing groups triumphantly contrast the new court verdict with their own staunch position on Turów and predict how Tusk’s government would soon make Poland dependent on German imported energy. And how about the government? It looks that they will have the final say on Turów. It is them who have the power to determine if an alternative strategy for Bogatynia region would be developed or not. They might use the proposals mentioned in this text as a starting point and to try to maintain the region’s status as an energy producer, but they could also decide to refrain from creating any consistent policies.

In this scenario, Bogatynia would be left at the mercy of private investors who could come there, if attracted by special conditions they would certainly get, or not.

If they do not, the region is likely to repeat the trajectory of other Polish and Central-Eastern European industrial regions where the main industrial activity was suddenly closed down due to political reasons. In other words, to see a social collapse.

More in our video documentary:

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