No matter who wins Poland’s election parliament is set to debate a divisive new law that gives the government additional powers in the process of planning new coal mines.
That’s because the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party government scheduled a parliamentary session immediately after the election to be held by the outgoing parliament’s MPs. Although PiS is way ahead in opinion polls, the final outcome is still in doubt — and the extra-parliamentary session allows the government to push through legislation even if it loses power.
The draft mining law gives Warsaw the power to circumvent local governments and communities if it decides that a mining project is important for “the raw material security of the country.”
The government argues that the law is needed to slash red tape and provide greater certainty to investors. The explanation in the draft says it “will make possible faster and more effective administrative procedures.”
But skeptics are worried about the speed of the legislation — it’s not going through consultations, and instead is being rushed through parliament as a private member’s bill — and on its impact at a time when the rest of the EU is shifting away from coal.
“The effect will be accelerating the implementation of hard and lignite coal mining projects,” said Janusz Buszkowski, a climate and energy lawyer from ClientEarth, an NGO.
About 80 percent of Poland’s electricity is generated by burning hard coal or even dirtier lignite — giving it the highest coal dependency in the EU. The government has promised to cut that to 50 percent in 2040, but that pace is at odds with the EU’s push for carbon neutrality by 2050.
Poland, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary, is blocking the 2050 initiative, and is holding out for generous EU compensation to finance decarbonization.
Poland is also moving ahead with new coal-fired power generation installations, such as a 1,000-megawatt plant in the northern town of Ostrołęka.
“Coal guarantees our energy security. In 20 to 25 years, coal’s share in the energy mix will go down to 40-50 percent because Poland [will] diversify its energy sources,” Piotr Naimski, the government’s adviser for strategic energy infrastructure, said in London last month.
“We want to carry out our energy policy the way we want to run it, not the way imposed on us by French or German companies,” Naimski added.
Local governments are fuming at the prospect of Warsaw overriding their wishes.
“This law will effectively end our planning powers,” said Piotr Kuczera, the mayor of Rybnik in the western Polish region of Silesia, which sits atop some potential coal deposits that remain untapped.
To mine or not to mine
Local governments are whipsawed by conflicting demands — Warsaw’s push to continue burning coal against growing grassroots and international pressure to cut coal use.
“It’s about the environment,” said Kuczera. “We have taken care of former mining grounds, there are new companies coming to town, unemployment is 3.8 percent, we’re no longer dependent on coal for our economy.”
Bapro, a privately held Polish company, is currently going through the permitting process to build a coal mine to extract an estimated 115 million tons of coal sitting under Rybnik. “If that new law passes, we won’t be able to influence the process anymore,” Kuczera said.
The government has tried to calm the regional backlash caused by the proposed law, explaining that it would only apply to coal deposits that have a strategic meaning for the country.
“The law won’t affect any [coal] deposits in Silesia and the Lesser Poland [Kraków] regions,” Deputy Energy Minister Adam Gawęda said in Rybnik on Tuesday. He said the law is being debated to make sure deposits of lignite in central Poland and hard coal in eastern Poland could be extracted in the future.
Silesia is a key battle arena in the election; Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is running for a parliamentary seat from the regional capital Katowice. A poor showing in Silesia could endanger PiS’s chances of forming the next government.
The law appears aimed at Złoczew in central Poland, where there are potential lignite deposits seen a crucial for the future of the nearby power plant in Bełchatów — Europe’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Bełchatów will run out of fuel in the mid-2030s, and the government wants to ensure continued operations of a plant that supplies a fifth of Poland’s electricity.
Kuczera was skeptical of the government’s scramble to calm voters.
“It’s the election campaign and I’m not surprised that is their reaction,” he said. “If they wanted an open discussion, why are they skipping the consultation process by tabling it via a group of MPs, not the government? Why is the parliament working on it a day after the election?
“We are ready now to replace coal with other sources of energy. And I’m saying this as a mayor of a town where two coal mines are still operating and will operate for another 20-30 years,” said Kuczera.