Warsaw, Katowice, Wroclaw Trucks of all sizes are jammed in long rows on both sides of the access road to the Staczic colliery, which has been blackened by crushed coal. An open white VW flatbed truck has attached an old caravan in which two pensioners have been waiting for days to be allowed to load coal at the pit. They came 300 kilometers from Poland’s eastern border to the coal mine south of the Silesian metropolis of Katowice, say Lukasz and Gregorz, who only want to give their first names.
The truck belongs to a master bricklayer in their home village, and the two of them collected the money for the fuel at home in order to get coal for everyone. Because not only Lukasz and Gregorz, but millions of Poles are currently facing the same problem: an acute shortage of coal. Many people between the Oder and the Bug don’t know how to get through the winter.
And that despite the huge coal deposits in the country. Because the use of coal is still widespread in Poland, nowhere in the EU is coal more important.
The most populous EU member state in Eastern Europe covers 70 percent of its energy requirements with coal. In addition, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Poland imposed an embargo on Russian coal as early as April, four months ahead of all other EU countries. Poland imported twelve million tons in 2021, eight million of them from Russia. These are now missing.
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Eight million tons of coal came from Russia
Brown coal migrates massively into the combined heat and power plants, which are the biggest CO2 emitters in the EU. Hard coal is produced for the steel industry – and for heating in private houses that do not have a district heating connection. 96 percent of the 57 million tons of hard coal still mined in EU countries come from Polish mines. The state-owned company PGG is the largest hard coal producer in the EU.
3.8 of the 15.5 million Polish households still heat with coal. Coal is the cheapest of the energy sources – although many Poles cannot afford it given the sharp rise in prices. Inflation in Poland was 17.9 percent most recently, the highest it has been in 17 years. The main drivers are energy prices.
Lukasz and Gregorz therefore continue to wait persistently in front of the small booth at the mine entrance, where the prices for coal are posted for private customers: 1486 zloty for a ton of coal for private collection, 317 euros. They can get a maximum of ten tons. The load is worth it: coal dealers would have to pay 2,500 zloty per ton – the price capped by the government at 2,000 zloty plus delivery.
“The price has more than doubled in the past year,” reports Lukasz, the older of the two and a former bus driver. He and his family of five would need four tons of coal during the heating period. He doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for all this, says the bearded man while reading the coal prices for the mine on a notice board. Behind it you can see how the four large sheaves of the winding tower turn and pull coal from the depths.
The government pays 3,000 zlotys (649 euros) to the poorest families who heat with coal. But in order to somehow keep costs under control, there are kilometers of long queues of trucks in front of the country’s almost 30 coal mines every day. Because the coal that Poland now imports from South Africa or Indonesia instead of Russia is scarce, several million tons are missing due to the sharp rise in demand.
Replacing coal imports from Russia is difficult and expensive. The government is taking countermeasures by capping the price of coal at 2,000 zloty. The equivalent of 8.6 billion euros has cost energy price caps, heating subsidies and a reduction in VAT for petrol this year.
>> Read here: Could the price of heating oil fall again in 2023?
This puts a strain on the national budget. At the same time, Warsaw is still not receiving the 24 billion euros in subsidies and 12 billion euros in reduced loans from the EU’s Corona development program because of the dispute with Brussels over the rule of law. On the contrary: Poland is being fined a million euros every day from its normal payments from the EU – because of the environmental damage caused by opencast lignite mining in the Polish-Czech-German border triangle near Turow.
The head of the ruling national-populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, advises his compatriots in view of the impending winter: “You have to burn everything at the moment, except car tires. Poland has to warm up somehow.” With wood, rubbish – and of course coal.
But that’s the big concern of Polish environmentalists: tens of millions of tons of coal are burned in Polish households, often in old stoves called “kopciuchy” or “Drechspatz” – 87 percent of all coal burned in private households in the EU. Added to this are the huge amounts of lignite and hard coal in Poland’s power plants.
Sad record: the worst air in Europe
Five of the 11 cities in the EU with the worst air pollution are already in Poland – including southern Poland’s Nowy Sacz, which has the worst air quality in Europe. There, the fine dust pollution is almost three times as high as the value that the World Health Organization still considers permissible. Polish environmental activists and climate protectors count 45,000 deaths from particulate matter every year, 400,000 across the entire continent, because the exhaust clouds from Belchatow, Europe’s largest lignite-fired power plant and CO2 emitter, stretch as far as the Atlantic.
“Our children have four times as many fine dust particles in their blood,” reports environmental activist Daria Zawarczynska-Szlapa from the Silesian coal town of Myslowice. “If we don’t stop the coal, it will end catastrophically,” says the mother, who only lets her two children play outside with masks because of the smog. The number of residents dying of lung cancer is increasing rapidly, most recently her 43-year-old friend died of it.
Nevertheless, the PiS government continues to rely on fossil fuels. Five new coal-fired power plants are under construction. Despite the billions in losses of the state coal companies. Despite the ever-increasing costs, because the fuel has to be fetched from greater and greater depths, which means that mine accidents caused by methane gas explosions are becoming more frequent again. Australia’s costs in open pit mining are estimated at 20 euros per tonne. At Poland’s PGG, experts estimate it at at least 100 euros per ton.
No more coal concessions
Some politicians therefore want to get away from coal more quickly. Jacub Chelstowski has invited guests to the Silesian Center for Freedom and Solidarity, a museum commemorating the 1981 coal miners’ uprising against the imposition of martial law by the Communists is equivalent to. He will not grant any more coal concessions, he says.
In Silesia he wants to close more mines. There is a resolute focus on transformation – for example through plants of the French Stellantis Group for the production of electric cars or battery production in a factory of the South Korean SK Group. Chelstowski is counting on the EU: With subsidies from Brussels, he wants to lead his region into the era of renewable energies. “And it’s good that the EU is awarding the transformation funds directly to the European regions,” he emphasizes.
>> Read here: EU wants to cap the price of Russian oil at $60
Less than 30 of the more than 70 coal mines before the fall of the Wall are left today. From then 400,000 coal miners just 80,000. Those who leave voluntarily will receive lavish severance payments of 25,000 euros by Polish standards. But the wages are also princely at a good 2,000 euros a month – and the underground electorate is considered PiS-loyal.
The miners, their unions and the dominating state-owned companies in the energy sector are still a major force in Poland. A year and a half ago, in Katowice, they concluded the coal compromise with the government – exit only until 2049.
The government in Warsaw relies on liquid gas for energy supply, the new natural gas pipeline Baltic Pipe from Norway and Denmark – and on nuclear power. The US nuclear company Westinghouse wants to build six reactors in Poland, which are to go into operation in stages from 2032 onwards. But the financial issue for the kiln is as unresolved as the budget situation in many Polish families in view of the rapidly rising inflation.
In order to “distract from the energy and inflation misery”, the PiS government is becoming “world champion in terms of propaganda”, says Katowice-born Bartosz Wielinski, a reporter for the liberal newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza”. And so Prime Minister Mateusz Morwiecki has launched an old evergreen: Poland is once again demanding reparations from Germany because of the massive destruction in World War II.
More: Poland’s finance minister: “We’re not waiting for the money from Brussels”