The Czech Republic is one of Europe’s biggest coal mining areas and continues to rely heavily on coal for electricity and heat. Step by step, NGOs manage to push back the coal industry – but the interests they fight are huge.
In the heart of Central Europe, the landscape is scarred by huge open pit mines and industry complexes. The north of the Czech Republic, close to Germany and Poland, is a region where heavy industry has dominated for 150 years. Though after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Eastern Bloc many production facilities have disappeared, coal companies continue to harvest lignite in incredible quantities, and also dig up hard coal from deep mines.
The state-owned energy company ČEZ states it will be CO2 neutral by 2050, not so much by switching to renewable energy sources but by investing heavily in nuclear power. In the meantime, it wishes to continue its coal operation for decades to come. And that operation is huge.
On an annual basis, the Czech Republic produces around 40 million tonnes of lignite and around 10-15 million tonnes of hard coal. The first type of coal is used for electricity production, making the country one of Europe’s largest exporters of electricity (mainly to Slovakia, Germany, Austria and Italy). At home, electricity generated from lignite burning accounts for 55% of the electricity mix. Hard coal is mainly used for the steel industry and for making coke, in order to keep Czech houses warm – the country still has a central heating system.
A childhood in Northern Bohemia
Jan Rovenský, energy and climate campaigner at Greenpeace Czech Republic, grew up in the mining areas of Northern Bohemia. ‘A big deal of my childhood friends suffer from asthma and allergies,’ he says. ‘But most important, public health statistics show that people in the area show four years earlier than other Czechs.’
Research of Greenpeace has shown that the impact of the coal industry goes way beyond just health issues. In the communist era, more than eighty towns and villages were destroyed and over 100,000 people forced to move, sometimes several times, in order to excavate the lignite. The transition to a democratic Czech Republic in the 1990s did stop the continuing expansion of mines, according to Rovenský. ‘The government put borders around mines,’ he says. ‘But when the companies involved were privatised, they wanted to access the huge amount of coal under villages. This region really is cursed by coal.’
Expropriation was possible under Czech law, if there was a ‘public interest’ for mining purposes. The Nazi occupiers introduced the law in 1943, the communist regime used it for decades, and then the privatised mining companies applied the rule as a legal justification for their expansion strategies.
But that all came to a halt in 2013. Two years of intense campaigning by Greenpeace, other NGOs and local governments resulted in the removal of the expropriation provisions out of the Mining Code. Now it has become very difficult for mining operators to expand their activities on ‘occupied’ lands, unless the owners voluntarily give up their rights.
But the fight is far from over, warns Jan Rovenský of Greenpeace, because despite the law, the villages Horní Jiřetín, Černice and Karviná – Staré Město are still under threat. ‘Expansion of mines has been delayed for years, but the current government is doubting what to do: it wants to survive and is pressured by mining companies and labour unions to approve the project.’
The three biggest mining groups argue that the expansion is needed to keep jobs in the (deprived) region. Rovenský: ‘This is a ridiculous argument, it involves only 600 people. The sector already scrapped 14,000 jobs in the past twenty years. But labour unions are behind the plans of the companies.’
Secondly, they say that the mines need to continue to operate to guarantee energy security in the Czech Republic – playing to the mood of fear of Russia in Central Europe. ‘But you cannot talk seriously about energy security if you are exporting so much electricity,’ the energy campaigner argues.
Third: money. The lignite business is a huge source of income for the state, especially in the form of taxes and royalties for using the mines. Rovenský: ‘This is misleading as well: coal deposits are owned by the state, but they give a very low royalty (1,5%) for opencast mining. The Czech state, de facto under control of the mining sector, basically gives the rights away for free, therefore creating huge margins for the companies.’
The government will take a final decision on the expansion of the mines in Northern Bohemia in September. If the NGOs lose this battle, nearly 3,000 people have to move and the Czech Republic will emit up to additional 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 when it fully uses the deposits of the expanded mine.
So what do the Czechs think about the coal fight? Most of them are against mining and 70% is against expansion of mines. But being known as a country full of sceptics (80% of the Czechs are atheists), the argument of preventing climate change does not work very well. Jan Rovenský refers to figures of Eurostat, that show that only a third of the Czech population thinks climate change is a big problem.
Therefor, the campaign against coal focuses on the destruction of homes and villages, as well as on the impact on air quality. ‘We are trying to put the climate node in the whole story,’ explains Rovenský, ‘but concrete arguments close to the Czechs work better.’