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Coal Energy Environment 23 March, 2020 10:00 am   

Open-pit mine in Turów vs. the Czech Republic

The new coal-fired unit in the Turów power plant is almost finished. It should be ready to go in the third quarter of this year. However, the license to extract coal from a nearby coal mine will expire in a month. The Czechs are against prolonging it. Where will the coal come from if not the Turów mine? – asks Bartłomiej Sawicki, editor at BiznesAlert.pl.

New power plant in Turów without coal?

The coal mine in Turów produces between 7.5 and 10 million tons of coal annually. As much as 92.6 % of its output is used in the nearby power plant, which covers about 8% of Poland’s power demand. The mine’s 25-year license for lignite extraction will expire in April 2020. The mine is the plant’s manufacturing base and is located near the border with Germany and the Czech Republic, which is against extending the license. The Czechs are protesting against “expanding” the mine in Turów as they are concerned about its impact on their country’s groundwater supply. However, Polska Grupa Energetyczna (mine and plant owner, PGE) has not applied for a new license, instead they opted for prolonging the current one, which means the area of extraction will not be expanded. The Czechs have challenged Poland’s decision to extend the license until 2044 before the European Commission. If it turns out the permit cannot be prolonged, the power plant will have to buy lignite from somewhere else, but where? 

Czech arguments

It looks like the Czechs may have a hidden agenda. Czech businessmen may profit from supplying lignite from Czechia or Germany to Poland if Turów is forbidden from producing its own coal. In January 2020 the Czech Liberec District, which neighbors the Turów mine, filed a complaint with the EC against the “expansion” of the mine. This has been confirmed by Ana Crespo Parrondo from the EC press service to the Polish Press Agency. The Czechs believe that Polska Grupa Energetyczna’s plans are illegal and that Poland doesn’t want to cooperate with the Czech authorities, or start a dialogue with the locals. In an interview with the CTK agency, the Liberec District’s spokesman Filip Trdla said Poland was ignoring the position of the Czech local authorities and the public on the issue. He expressed his concern about the future of potable water on the Czech side of the border. The locals have drafted a petition against “the expansion of the Turów coal mine” and collected signatures.

Last November the Czech Ministry of the Environment announced it was against the “expansion” of the Turów mine. At the same time the Czech branch of Greenpeace started to protest. The organization collected about 13 thousand signatures in the Liberec District against the Polish plans. The activists also spoke about the dangers to potable water. The complaint was sent to Brussels. In mid January the Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection in Wrocław, Poland, issued a decision supporting the environmental impact assessment of the project. According to the Frank Bold lawyer association, which represents the Czech district, Poland broke Czech, Polish and EU regulations. “I think that 13 thousand signatures is a huge argument not only for the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament, but for the European Parliament itself. We believe Poland’s attitude towards issuing licenses is wrong, and we also believe the country does not follow directives, which allow their foreign neighbors to comment on and impact the investor’s plans,” Martin Půta, the region’s governor said.

Czechia’s minister of the environment Richard Brabec from the ruling party ANO, said that by issuing a positive decision on expanding the Turów mine, the Polish government suggested the project would not impact the Czechs. “The Czech Republic begs to differ and we cannot rely on Polish assurances only. This is why we want to put Poland under pressure, so that the EC could present its position on the issue,” Brabec said in an interview for the Czech media. He also added that the Czech Republic would argue that Poland had broken the environmental and water directives. Brabec assessed that the compensation Poland promised to provide had not been verified yet. He also reminded that already in the 1980s the groundwater level in Frydlant dropped  because of the extraction in Turów, but this time the impact would be even worse. “At that time the entire region was in trouble because there wasn’t enough water. If a new mine is built the water reserves may go down to zero. There will be no water in wells,” the minister said. However, Poland doesn’t want to open a new open-pit mine, it wants to expand a mine that already exists.

Poland’s rebuttal

Polska Grupa Energetyczna, which owns the Turów power plant and the opencast mine, stressed that contrary to what the Czechs were claiming no application for a new license had been filed. The expansion of the mining field will take place within the boundaries of the license from 1994. PGE also claims the deposit would be extracted to the south-east border of the field, which had been decided upon 26 years ago. The company has also declared it would decrease the area of the mining field by half in comparison to the 1994 permit.

As part of the current license the company has already limited the mining field, i.e. the area where extraction is actually pursued. PGE wants to operate the mine until the deposit runs out, i.e. until 2044. The mine has applied for prolonging the existing license by six years. The company is also negotiating to extend the permit by another 25 years, but within the borders set by the 1994 license and in line with the permission to exploit the deposit until it runs out in 2044, which is when the exploitation of the new unit in the Turów power plant will also come to an end.

PGE also responded to the claims regarding issues with groundwater. The company has stressed that currently there is no evidence that the mine impacts the eight water intakes in the Żytawska Trough in Czechia. Despite that, in case of the Uhelna water source, the company wants to take additional precautions and build an underground wall that will be 60-110 meters deep to prevent any potential flow of water from Uhelna to the mine. These preventative and additional measures were not required by the environmental decision. In other words, the water source will be secured against potential impact from the mine. Additionally, the impact of the open-pit mine on water is monitored by Polish-Czech and Polish-German expert teams, that use a network of about 550 monitoring bores. The results confirm that the coal mine does not drain potable water sources. Poland has also reiterated that the environmental decision for Turów was issued in line with domestic and international regulations. 

An ulterior motive 

It seems the Czech protests may have a hidden agenda that has little to do with the environment. Prague has not yet made a decision on phasing out lignite, but it is supposed to be made before the end of 2020. The most ambitious scenario says the deadline will be 2030, another says it’ll be 2040, and yet another points to the late 2040s. The Czech Coal Commission is an advisory body similar to the one functioning in Germany. The future of coal in the Czech Republic remains unknown. Still, it is worth mentioning a few companies that are currently extracting lignite in the north of the country.

Recoverable lignite resources in Czechia are estimated at 737 m tones. In 2017 lignite extraction was 38.1 m tons. The Ústecký Region, which neighbors the Liberec District, which is the loudest opponent of the Turów mine, is the biggest coal producer in the country. Another coal deposit is near the town of Sokolov. It has a huge extraction area of 1.4 thousand sq km and is located next to the Ore Mountains, close to the German border and in the vicinity of a number of towns, including Kadaň, Chomutov, Most, Teplice and Ústí nad Labem in the Ústecký Region. The lignite is extracted in the middle part of the river basin by four companies. A private entity ČSA owned by Pavel Tykač’s concern Severní Energetická, which will work until 2024. The second company is Vršanská uhelná, also owned by Tykač and said to operate until the mid century, but that call is yet to be made by the authorities in Prague. The other two firms belong to the state-owned Czech energy company CEZ (69% of shares owned by the state).Those are Libouš Severo české doly and Bílina Severo české doly. The first mine is allowed to operate until 2040, the other until the end of the 2040s. 

Since there is no deadline for ending lignite extraction in Czechia, but there is a plan for the continuation of coal production, the question is where will the Czechs find buyers for their coal? If they managed to stop coal extraction in Turów, they could sell it to the Polish power plant. If this happens, will the Liberec District protest against coal extraction in the neighboring  Ústecký Region with zeal comparable to their protests against Poland?

Czechs attack Turów from Germany

Czechs also own lignite-powered power plants by the Polish-German border. In 2016 Sweden’s Vattenfall sold the lignite-fired power plants Jaenschwalde (3000 MW) and Schwarze Pumpe (1600 MW) in Brandeburg, as well as Boxberg (2500 MW) in Saxony along with a few mines to a Czech company Energetický a průmyslový holding, a.s. (EPH).

On Janaury 29 the German government adopted a bill on phasing out coal. It includes a schedule and rules for ending coal-fired power and heat generation by 2038. This means lignite extraction in the Lusatia region can take place only until 2038. This region neighbors the Turów power plant. The LEAG company includes Germany’s Lausitz Energie Bergbau AG and Lausitz Energie Kraftwerke AG. Both own half of Czechia’s Energetický a Průmyslový Holding (EPH) and PPF Investments. LEAG also owns four lignite coal mines: Jänschwalde, Welzow-Süd, Nochten and Reichwalde. Jänschwalde is to extract lignite for three more years. The future of the new open-pit mine Welzow-Süd is still uncertain, but it seems it may stay in operation until 2038.

According to LEAG’s website lignite will be extracted in the Nochten mine in the existing minefield and in a new subarea called Mühlrose; in order to secure fuel for the Boxberg power plant. The works started in July 2019. The opencast mines Welzow-Süd I, Reichwalde and Nochten are capable of providing about 800 million tons of raw lignite. According to the initial blueprint they were to extract coal between 2040 and 2045, but the phase-out plan changed the deadline to 2038. If the license for Turów is not extended, the German coal extracted by Czechs could theoretically find its way to the Turów power plant.

Activists engage

Environmental NGOs from Poland, Czechia and Germany are also engaged in the conflict, those include the Ecological Association EKO-UNIA, Foundation Development YES – Open-Pit Mines NO, and Greenpeace. All of them talk about the “expansion” of the Turów mine. They have also protested against the PGE plans and collected signatures to prevent the license extension. 

Turów should diversify fuel sources

Extending the license for the Turów mine should cover Poland’s 8% of power consumption thanks to the Turów power plant. The license will run out in April and the new unit is about to be finished. Last year power production from coal dropped in Poland by about 20%. In 2018  49.07 TWh was produced from coal, whereas in 2019 the output dropped to 41.5 TWh. This change shows there is a lot to think about. PGE is already investing in wind farms and is getting ready to build photovoltaic farms in a different mining region – Bełchatów. Will Turów follow this path regardless of the future of the mine? Will lignite survive until 2040 despite the protests?  



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