When the czech government Announced it was take Poland to the highest court in Europe It was a surprise for Warsaw. After all, EU countries rarely sue each other. The demand from Prague is politically explosive. Not only is he questioning the extent of mining activity in Turów, a vast lignite mine that has been in operation for almost 100 years, but he also wants the European court of justice to order its immediate closure.
Situated between Germany and the Czech Republic in the Silesia region of southwestern Poland, the open pit mine is depleting its neighbors’ groundwater supplies and violates EU environmental law, the Czech government alleges. On the Czech and German sides of the border, communities blame Turów for draining the water and causing dangerous levels of air and noise pollution.
The Polish government vigorously disputes environmental claims. Government officials in Warsaw and the state utility company PGE, which owns Turów, also keep they have been in regular consultations with Prague and that there was no reason to escalate the dispute.
But some on the Polish side admit that the deterioration in the relationship has as much to do with a communications breakdown as it does with the mine.
“We get what we ask for. It’s a bit of our fault, ”said Magdalena Kościańska, a television journalist in the Polish city of Bogatynia, near the mine. For the past 16 years, Kościańska has been covering local news in her community and has never before seen such levels of abuse directed against Czechs by other Bogatynia residents, both online and offline. A Hands off Turów Facebook page has appeared where news of the lawsuit sparked an avalanche of insults against Czech citizens. “It is very hard and sad. We are neighbors, we like each other, we have friends between Czechs and Germans, ”he said.
In addition to the lawsuit, the Czech government has applied to the European court for a court order that would immediately stop mining in Turów. For the citizens of Bogatynia, the closure overnight would spell disaster.
“The consequences would be dramatic. We can’t even imagine that, ”said Bogatynia’s acting mayor Wojciech Dobrołowicz. Closing the mine would put thousands of people in the region out of work and cut Bogatynia’s budget in half.
For more than a century, the region has been economically dependent on the coal mine, even if the The size of the workforce at the complex, which includes a coal-fired power plant, has been reduced in recent years to about 3,600 employees. The mine’s concession expires in 2026, but its operator has requested a new concession to extend for the duration of the Turów coal deposit, which is expected to be in 2044.
“Even the prospect of 2044 scares us. It doesn’t even give us 50 years, which would be enough to carry out a transition that would be complete, safe and without negative consequences for the region, ”said Dobrołowicz.
Economic forces mean the writing is on the wall for Turów much earlier, some analysts believe. “The entire complex will no longer be viable in less than 10 years,” said Robert Tomaszewski, energy analyst at Polityka Insight in Warsaw.
The EU’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissionstwo emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050 makes it imperative to ditch coal for cleaner alternatives.
In the short term, coal is also facing increasing pressure from skyrocketing prices on the European carbon emissions trading market, which in recent weeks exceeded € 40 per tonne of COtwo.
The EU forces big polluters to offset their emissions by buying permits under the scheme. In 2019, lignite burned at the Turów power plant pumped 5.5 million tons of COtwo into the atmosphere, making it the fifth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Poland..
Meanwhile, EU state aid rules limit Warsaw’s scope to provide support to struggling coal plants, so the plant’s decline seems inevitable.
But this reality has not come home to Bogatynia. “I don’t know of a single person who would suggest closing the complex in 10 years,” Kościańska said, adding that it was difficult for her to imagine the mine closing before 15 years.
Turów’s story is not unique. Coal still generates most of Poland’s energy and many of its cities and regions depend on heavy coal industries that the EU’s climate policy will make obsolete. But it illustrates a broader political dilemma.
The coal transition is accepted by Polish society as a whole: 78% of Poles agree that the climate crisis requires urgent action. Yet many communities fear for their prospects for the future without coal. And some politicians are happy to exploit those fears.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reluctantly adhered to higher emissions reduction targets at a European council meeting in December 2020, but his junior coalition partner, Solidarity Poland (SP), rejected the new targets and he publicly accused Morawiecki of “defeatism.”
SP Lieutenant Deputy Minister Janusz Kowalski toured Poland and met with miners’ unions in Turów and elsewhere, vowing to fight the EU’s green plans. Kowalski lost his ministerial post in February, but that did not end the tensions in the government. According to Tomaszewski, the gap will only get bigger as the government faces a series of unpopular decisions, from closing mines to announcing higher energy prices due to rising emissions costs. “The green transition is a perfect theme to be put together by populists,” he said.
The SP controls only 19 seats in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, but these MPs outweigh their weight, knowing that their departure from the coalition would deprive the Morawiecki government of its majority. That, in turn, would force the prime minister’s Law and Justice party to seek allies among opposition MPs or face early elections.
At the same time, the government cannot simply give in to the demands of the PS and completely abandon its ecological commitments. Poland will receive more than 139 billion euros from the EU over the next seven years in exchange for reducing emissions. COtwo prices will continue to increase, driving coal out of the market regardless of decisions made in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, pressure from Poland’s neighbors on Turów is mounting. The German city of Zittau, which borders the mining region, filed its own complaint with the European Commission in January. TO study commissioned by the German branch of Greenpeace said the continued operation of the mine threatened groundwater depletion, air and water pollution and subsidence.
German Green MEP Anna Cavazzini has called on the Berlin government to support the Czech demand on the grounds that the impact on the lives of Saxon communities is “catastrophic”.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Morawiecki government is likely to put decisions on Poland’s energy transition into the background whenever possible. This approach leaves people in places like Turów even more vulnerable. When the time finally comes to ditch the coal for good, locals won’t be ready, activists say. For anti-green parties like the SP, that may be the time to shine.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism