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As Climate Talks Start, Coal Power Is Dividing Europe

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Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova, Bloomberg

The divide largely follows the old fault lines of the Cold War. In much of the former Communist bloc, coal is the only domestic alternative to oil and gas imported from Russia.

The two mines highlight Europe’s growing divide on cutting greenhouse gases as global leaders descend on Paris for the biggest climate conference in history. While western Europeans are accelerating the exit from coal, their eastern neighbors, particularly the Czech Republic and Poland, are taking steps to keep mines — even those with only lignite, the dirtiest variety of the fuel — open for decades.

“This is a responsible decision that takes into account the energy security of our country,” Czech Industry and Trade Minister Jan Mladek said after the government extended Bilina’s lifespan. Despite a push from western Europe to limit coal consumption, “electricity will have to be produced somehow.”

The divide largely follows the old fault lines of the Cold War. In much of the former Communist bloc, coal is the only domestic alternative to oil and gas imported from Russia. Bulgaria still gets almost half of its electricity from coal, and in Serbia it’s about two-thirds. In six former Soviet-bloc countries now in the EU, coal accounted for roughly 39 percent of the energy consumed last year, according to the BP Statistical Review. In western Europe, it accounted for 12.5 percent.

Closing mines is particularly contentious in Poland, where the coal industry still employs some 100,000 people and helps generate over 80 percent of the country’s electricity. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s newly elected Law & Justice Party has vowed to negotiate exemptions from a pledge to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent by 2030 that the 28 members of the EU — including Poland’s previous government — agreed to a year ago.

“We obviously want to protect the climate, but only to the point that it won’t hurt the Polish economy,” Szydlo said before traveling to Paris for the UN meeting.

And in October, the Czech government granted the Bilina mine permission to exceed limits imposed by a 1991 law that had sought to mitigate the environmental devastation wrought by decades of communist rule. The giant crater, which suffocates nearby towns with dust in the summer and turns into a pool of toxic sludge with the first rains, will grow deeper and wider for another four decades, giving state-controlled utility CEZ AS access to an additional 150 million tons of lignite. And the government didn’t rule out extending the life of another mine a few miles away.

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