14 May 2024

Turów would avert many disasters by saying goodbye to coal

On 13 March 2024, environmental activists in Poland won a court case against the Turów coal mine. The ruling, handed down by a regional administrative court in Warsaw, invalidated the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) required by PGE, Poland’s largest power producer, to  secure its mining licence until 2044.

According to the court, the current EIA didn’t take into account the Polish-Czech agreement on the mine, signed two years earlier, which guaranteed that Poland would receive no further repercussions for the longstanding cross-border crisis caused by the mine, in exchange for a one-time payment from the Polish government to its Czech counterpart.

But what does the March court verdict mean and what does it change?

From a legal standpoint, Turów reflects a complex web of struggles over permits, EIAs, licences, court hearings and verdicts. But from a community and environmental impact perspective, the situation is stark: the coal mine, situated between Czechia and Germany, is draining water supplies, damaging peoples’ homes, and with the help of the nearby 2 GW Turów thermal power plant, irredeemably destroying the climate.

Turów is located in Lower Silesia, south-west Poland. Lignite there has been excavated since the nineteenth century. It originally supplied coal to the local market and later, to a nearby power plant across the river Neisse. In the 1960s, Polish authorities began building a set of coal-fired power blocks in the region. The latest was opened in 2021, while some older units have already been decommissioned. 

Today, the mine and power plant are operated by state-owned energy giant PGE. The complex consists of an open-pit mine, and power generation infrastructure consisting of three 250 MW units, three 261 MW units, and one 496 MW unit.

The Turów complex has previously been among the “Dirty Thirty” most polluting power plants in Europe [1], and while PGE claims that “the plant meets all requirements regarding ecological parameters of the European Union” [2], it still figures among the EU’s top emitters, releasing ca. 5.5 million tons of CO2 a year [3] into the atmosphere. There are currently no plans for its closure. 

Since 2015, residents of neighbouring communities in Czechia and Germany have complained that the expanding mine is draining their water supplies and causing subsidence, resulting in cracking of nearby houses. It was PGE’s decision to ignore these grievances that led community groups to turn to the Czech government for help. 

Czechia attempted to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels at the ministry level. However, their concerns fell upon deaf ears. With no answer from Warsaw, the Prague administration took the Turów crisis to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). 

In May 2021, the top European Court ruled that Poland had violated EU law by issuing the mining licence without carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and ordered Poland to immediately cease lignite extraction activities at the Turów mine [4]. But instead of ordering PGE to halt operations in accordance with the court’s findings, the Polish Prime Minister went directly to Prague, and agreed a €45 million compensation package for Czechia, in addition to a promise to construct a waterproof barrier that would allegedly help to reduce water drainage caused by the mine on the Czech side of the border. In exchange, the Czech government withdrew its case against Poland at the CJEU. 

However, the decision to duck out of the legal case came at an extra cost to Poland. As a consequence of the Polish government’s refusal to order a halt to operations at the mine, it also incurred €68.5 million in fines from the CJEU [5].

Turów’s current licence, issued in 1994 and extended in 2020, allows PGE to mine at the site until 2026. However, in 2022, Poland’s environmental authorities controversially granted PGE a new mining licence for the period 2026 to 2044, despite PGE’s failure to conduct a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). For its part, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) had already expressed concerns that such a decision might violate Polish legislation on environmental protection. 

Polish, Czech, and German civil society organisations protested and challenged the decision to grant the 2026-2044 licence in court. Eventually, on March 13, 2024, the court ruled in favour of the activists, declaring the EIA invalid on the basis that the Polish General Directorate for Environmental Protection hadn’t taken into account the Polish-Czech deal, which should be treated as an act of international law. However, the court dismissed all other claims, saying all other procedures, including the Environmental Impact Assessment and public consultations, were carried out correctly.

Nonetheless, this latest judgement is not binding and PGE has announced that it will lodge an appeal. Further proceedings will take place at the higher administrative court and are expected to be drawn out. If the higher court upholds the March judgement, it will open the way to a legal challenge of the mine’s 2026-2044 licence. If such a judgement is issued in 2026 or later, it would lead to an immediate halt to mining at Turów, because PGE would no longer be in possession of a valid mining licence for the site. 

The Polish government and representatives of Poland’s power sector argue that the power generated at the Turów complex is crucial for Poland’s energy security. However, this greatly exaggerates Turów’s role. Poland’s total electricity production capacity stands at 66.4 GW. Turów is responsible for only 2 GW of this capacity, with an annual output of 10.06 TWh. Poland’s total consumption reached 168.75 TWh in 2023 [6], meaning Turów provided less than 6% of the country’s power needs.

In recent years, Poland has recorded extraordinary growth in renewable energy, with wind and solar generating 21% of the country’s electricity in 2023, up 5% from 2022. Meanwhile, the share of Poland’s power produced by renewables reached 27%, up from 21% in 2022 [7]. Today, with the country able to call upon many more transboundary interconnections than in the past, energy security is far from being dependent on a sole power plant. This was made starkly obvious in the summer of 2015, when 5.5 GW of Poland’s 60 GW power generation capacity (ie. more than 9%) had to be shut down due to severe drought and the associated risk of overheating at two large coal power plants in Połaniec and Kozienice.

This serves as conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that coal and gas can readily be replaced by affordable, environmentally friendly renewables, so long as there is the political determination to do so. Furthermore, this transition can occur without sacrificing employment opportunities, as the renewable sector continues to create an increasing number of jobs. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the renewable sector in Poland experienced remarkable growth between 2020 and 2021, with the number of jobs in the sector surging by more than 25% in just one year, and it continues to go from strength to strength [8]. 

To facilitate the smooth replacement of carbon-intensive industries, the European Union created the EU Just Transition Fund (JTF). It’s a financial mechanism to provide support to regions, sectors and communities facing challenges from the transition to cleaner forms of energy and diversification of the economy.

In 2021, Poland’s Lower Silesia region applied for €250 million from the JTF for the Turów mine and power plant. However, the European Commission rejected the proposal, due to the absence of a coal-exit timeline for the PGE-owned facility, coupled with PGE’s controversial filing for the 2026-2044 mining licence. Even the trade unions representing workers at Turów acknowledge that PGE failed to develop a comprehensive transition plan, resulting in reputational damage and financial and legal setbacks for the company. Meanwhile, other Polish regions, including Eastern Greater Poland, Bełchatów, Upper Silesia, and the former Wałbrzych coal basin — situated near Turów — have successfully secured financial support from the EU’s JTF budget.

Coal is in terminal decline in Europe, and all governments have been put on notice that they need to exit coal by 2030 at the latest to deliver on the goals of the UN Paris Climate Agreement. Even in Poland, where the government is yet to announce a coal-exit policy, certain regions are making progress toward phasing out coal by 2030. Eastern Greater Poland is expected to close its last lignite mine and power plant this year, while the Bełchatów region already has a plan to gradually decommission Europe’s largest thermal power plant (5.1 GW) in the 2030s, and will ultimately benefit from accelerating this process further. Both regions have devised roadmaps for coal-exit strategies and are leveraging the EU’s Just Transition Fund to support the transition of former coal mining and other high-carbon regions. These forward-thinking plans stand in stark contrast to what is happening at Turów, where there is no decarbonisation plan to speak of and access to millions of euros in funding for the transition has already been forfeited.  

For Turów to smoothly transition from toxic coal to a renewable energy-based power system, a comprehensive plan is vital. This is the only way to ensure the well-being of workers, residents, and the environment. To effectively address the needs of all parties involved, it’s essential that all stakeholders, including miners, residents, civil society organisations (CSOs), local and regional administrations, representatives from PGE, as well as community representatives from neighbours Czechia and Germany, are actively involved in the planning process. Without such a plan, the region faces a grim future, burdened by a polluting industry plagued by ongoing legal challenges, resulting in fines, loss of investment, and environmental harm. For these reasons and more, it’s long overdue for Turów to bid farewell to coal.

Notes:

  1. Europe’s Dirty 30 How the EU’s coal-fired power plants are undermining its climate effort
  2. PGE – Turów Power Plant
  3. BFF Coal Exit Tracker
  4. Court of Justice of the European Union – Poland must immediately cease lignite extraction activities in the Turów mine
  5. Court of Justice of the European Union – Poland is ordered to pay the European Commission a daily penalty payment of €500 000 because it has not ceased lignite extraction activities at Turów mine
  6. EMBER Climate – Poland
  7. EMBER Climate – Changing course: Poland’s energy in 2023
  8. IRENA – Renewable energy and jobs: Annual review 2023
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