Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk says the country’s giant coal fields should become a cornerstone in Europe’s defense against a newly aggressive Russia.
Because the fossil fuel supplies 90 percent of Poland’s power it has less need of Russian natural gas than other Eastern European nations, burning half as much per capita as the neighboring Czech Republic, for example. As politicians wrestle with how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine, Tusk argues Europe needs to “rehabilitate” coal’s dirty image and use it to break Russia’s grip on energy supply.
“In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the overriding objective is to lessen the dependence on Russia,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at Eurasia Group in London. “Climate objectives will be absolutely secondary to that.”
Coal, a cheaper source of power than gas, nuclear, wind or solar at today’s prices, is already a key part of Poland’s economy, keeping factories competitive and guaranteeing hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. It’s even a tourist attraction.
At Belchatow in central Poland, where Europe’s largest mine produces more than twice as much coal as the whole of the U.K., visitors stand on an observation platform looking into a 310 meter-deep pit that supplies the giant power station visible on the horizon. On a recent April afternoon, the entire junior Polish national soccer team arrived for a look.
Poland burns over 50 million tons of coal a year, more than any European nation other than Germany, while having the lowest reliance on natural gas among the EU’s 10 largest economies, according to International Energy Agency data. That’s a popular position in a nation where Soviet troops were stationed for four decades until the early 1990s.
“Poland should definitely continue using its coal to benefit from its own resources rather than increase the country’s dependency on external energy supplies,” said Lukasz Chodkowski, 33, a Warsaw resident who works as a project co-ordinator in the capital city.
That doesn’t mean Poland is completely independent of Russia. While less vulnerable than some of its neighbors, it remains a gas importer and any disruption in supply would raise energy costs by forcing it to seek more expensive imports from elsewhere.
President Vladimir Putin said last week that unless Ukraine pays for gas it’s already bought, Russia may have to stop shipments, threatening supplies across Europe.
“We want the whole of Europe to acknowledge coal as a legitimate energy source,” Prime Minister Tusk said on TV on March 29. “Poland has been consistently proving that it can guarantee energy security.”
In boosting coal, Poland has the backing of other post-Communist EU members such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which also have large deposits and a high concentration of heavy industry that depends on the fuel.