Pope's call on coal puts Poles in a pickle

By bne IntelliNews June 19, 2015

Adam Easton in Warsaw -


Catholicism and coal have arguably done more to shape modern Poland than anything else. That has Poles in a pickle following Pope Francis's warning over coal's devilish impact on the environment.

In his encyclical "on care for our common home" the head of the Catholic Church wrote: "We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels - especially coal, but also oil and to a lesser degree, gas - needs to be progressively replaced without delay."

"The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," the pontiff added. 

The response in Poland has been one of alarm in some quarters. Broadsheet Rzeczpospolita warned of "an anti-Polish encyclical". Politicians scrambled to weave their way through a potential minefield. 

Treasury Minister Andrzej Czerwinski claimed he welcomed the pope's entry into the debate because it will help Poles recognize the energy mix should be balanced. "It is not that we have to shut coal," he suggested.

Indeed, under pressure from the European Commission to contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, Poland's governing coalition has pledged to progressively reduce the country's dependence on coal. However, almost 90% of the country's electricity still comes from burning coal and its dirtier cousin lignite.

Poland has abundant reserves of both hard coal and lignite, so burning them is the cheapest way to produce electricity and keep energy bills down. 

Poland's state-controlled utilities are currently spending PLN30bn (€7.2bn) building new generation units, most of which will burn coal or lignite. Warsaw argues that building new, more efficient coal-fired plants and shutting down older more polluting ones will reduce overall CO2 emissions by about a third. 

Apart from keeping energy bills down, the coal mining sector, just like the Catholic Church, is an influential player in Polish society. Silesia's mines employ close to one hundred thousand people. When you add in their families, that represents a lot of votes for any politician ahead of October's parliamentary elections.

That's a powerful push on Polish politicians, most of whom call coal the country's "treasure," and the foundation for almost a quarter of a century of uninterrupted economic growth. 

But the country's state-owned coal mines are badly in need of restructuring. Some of Silesia's mines have been in operation since the 18th and 19th centuries and the easiest, and highest quality, coal to get at has already been exploited.

Deeper excavation and associated costs have driven up production costs. Meanwhile, record low prices and falling demand from more efficient power plants has brought Kompania Weglowa (KW), Europe's largest hard coal miner, to the brink of collapse. 

Just three of its 14 mines turned a profit last year, while the overall group made a loss of PLN1.25bn on coal sales. It currently costs KW more to bring the coal out of the ground than it can earn on the market.


However, any attempt to close pits is fraught with political danger, as Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz discovered earlier this year. A plan to shut down some of KW's worst performing collieries was met instantly with strikes and protests. The PM swiftly backtracked, and Warsaw is now left with a partial restructuring and a commitment to pump public money into KW to keep it afloat.

Poland's main opposition party, the populist and conservative Law and Justice (PiS), which has close links to the Polish Catholic Church, was quick to pounce, becoming increasingly vocal about protecting Polish mining jobs. That has helped it push its way into the political ascendancy ahead of the elections set to take place by October.

Andrzej Duda, a devout Catholic from the party, won May's presidential elections, partly on a promise to re-industrialize Poland, even at the cost of withdrawing from the EU's climate policy. He also won the backing of the Solidarity trade union.

However, the edict from the Vatican blurs the picture somewhat. Father Maciej Zieba, a Dominican and president of the Third Millennium Institute - founded to spread the teachings of the hugely revered Polish pope John Paul II - says Pope Francis' intervention will make it harder for politicians to portray Brussels as the enemy of Polish economic growth.

"The encyclical is an important argument in the public debate," he insists "I think many people will rethink the problem. It will be more difficult for politicians to say 'we're being attacked by the EU'. The bishops and public opinion will change."

However, religious affairs commentator Adam Szostkiewicz disagrees. He reckons even the more faithful among the country's politicians will simply choose to ignore the Pope's message on coal.  

"People here are much more concentrated on their jobs and the well being of their families than on the green concerns of this pope or anyone else's. Maybe in the next generation," he said.

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