Germany Continues to Expand Brown Coal Mines Despite Its Commitment Clean Energy

Country’s decision to phase out nuclear power means it continues to rely on coal to close the energy gap

Florian “Floh” Hurtig wades through waist-high, thorny weeds and pungent wildflowers with sure-footed agility, dashing up a steep levy in Hembach Forest to take in the shocking view on the other side. That would be the sprawling open pit Tagebau Hambach mine in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany where the company RWE Power is extracting soft brown lignite coal, or “braunkohle,” for its equally massive coal-fired power plant that is visible on the horizon.

Brown coal from the Hambach Tagebau mine feeds the power plant visible in the background. Photo by Kari Lydersen.
Brown coal from the Hambach Tagebau mine feeds the power plant visible in the background. Photo by Kari Lydersen.

The scale of the Hambach pit is mind-boggling, on par with the giant strip mines and mountaintop removal operations in the US, and startling amidst the otherwise lush green farm fields and forests. It’s about 33 square miles wide and 438 feet deep and produces almost 100 million of tons of coal a year, according to RWE. Three hundred-feet-tall “diggers” or “baggers” stationed throughout the pit scrape the crumbly golden earth and the damp, dark seams of coal onto conveyor belts. The four brown coal pits that RWE Power owns in this region of northwest Germany have expanded across the landscape like a creeping fungus, consuming forests, fields, towns, roads and even a river along the way.

A number of towns also have been destroyed to make way for the mines. As 25-year-old Hurtig trekked the four miles from the local train station to the mine pit, he crossed a new railroad and a yet unfinished new highway. These will soon replace the existing railroad and highway that’s slated to be swallowed up as the Hambach pit expands farther.

In most cases the mine’s expansion goes smoothly for the company, aided by a long-standing “Mountain Law” that basically gives mines eminent domain-type rights to seize land and compensate landowners. But Hurtig and other activists are trying to change that by occupying a patch of shady oak forest on the edge of the pit that they say is next in line to be destroyed.

The day the occupation started – April 14, 2012 – has been spray-painted on the cobblestones outside the local train stop, where Hurtig and his friends leave communal bikes with numerical locks for supporters to ride to the forest. A solid core group of German activists with the group “Werkstatt für Aktionen und Alternativen” (Workshops for Action and Alternatives, or WAA) have been living in tree houses and tents in the forest since April, and scores of supporters from around Europe, Latin America and the US have passed through the encampment.

The occupation has received significant attention from locals and from media, including a tabloid that wanted to photograph the activists naked in the showers that – along with the kitchens, compost toilets and other structures – have been beautifully constructed from forest wood and donated timbers. In anticipation of staying through the long, cold, gray German winter, the activists have also built a cozy two-story straw bale house. But the occupiers suspect things may come to a head before the cold weather sets in. October is the beginning of the clear-cutting season for loggers, and the activists say the company may move to evict them in coming weeks.

RWE spokersperson Lothar Lambertz said by email that the company representatives have tried to meet with the activists “several times so far, but we didn´t find openness for a discussion. Besides this there were some attacks on our security staff as well on parts of operational sectors, which we had to press charges against. We of course respect the right of free speech. But we can´t tolerate violence against people or destruction of our plants.”

To raise awareness and prepare for a possible standoff, the activists organized a week of action and events at the site during the first week of October that included workshops, presentations on climate change, and skill sharing.

Coal mining has a long history in this part of Germany. People here dug up coal to burn for heat and cooking as far back as Roman times. In the 1800s and 1900s, coal fueled massive industrial growth in North-Rhine Westphalia. It helped build the steel and weapons empire of the Krupp family, which supplied Hitler with artillery and still exists today as the multi-national ThyssenKrupp. Most of the mines tapping deep seams of “hard coal” or “stone coal” (the type commonly found in the US) have closed in past decades since it is much cheaper to import such coal from places like Russia, Poland, Colombia, and South Africa.

But mining the shallow lignite brown coal is relatively cheap. Brown coal looks more like petrified wood than what most people think of as coal. Since it is moist and heavy, it can only be economically transported short distances and is hence burned in power plants near the mine sites. Brow coal also burns dirtier than “hard coal,” meaning that the farmers in this area and the residents of nearby towns such as Lamersdorf and Sindorf and cities like Duren and Cologne are exposed to significant levels of fine particulate matter and other air pollutants.

earth moving machines
Massive machines known as diggers harvest brown coal at the Inden Mine. Photo by Kari Lydersen.

The plants also emit high levels of carbon dioxide, an irony since Germany has gained much acclaim for its aggressive adoption of renewable wind and solar energy. Wind turbines can be seen in every direction beyond the brown coal pits; solar panels are installed on many farmhouse roofs around the mines, and there is even a large county-owned solar farm right outside the RWE coal plant near Duren. But given the reliance on dirty brown coal – which in 2011 provided a quarter of the country’s electricity – Hurtig calls the solar and wind boom “Germany’s renewable energy lie.” He sees the widespread adoption of renewables as nearly meaningless if the country continues to expand its overall energy consumption and get a significant portion of it from brown coal.

Germany’s few remaining hard coal mines will close by 2018 when crucial government subsidies end, but brown coal mines are scheduled to operate through 2045. Many people believe they will actually run longer since new mines and new power plants have been proposed.

Part of the reason for Germany’s continued reliance on coal, particularly brown coal, is the country’s popular decision to close all nuclear plants by 2022. The country needs other types of power to fill the energy gap created by doing away with nuclear power. There is still not enough renewable energy available and generating power from natural gas in Europe (unlike in the US) is more expensive than coal.

Hurtig and his friends think asking whether renewables can meet current or future electricity demand is the wrong approach. “It shouldn’t be a question of we need this much energy, so how do we produce it?” Hurtig said. “It should be a matter of how much energy can we produce without having a serious environmental impact, and then how can we live with that amount of energy?”

Germany has a long tradition of strident anti-nuclear activism. But environmentalists say that nationwide there is little opposition to coal mining and coal-fired power. Neither is there much awareness of the health and environmental impacts of the coal industry. One of the goals of Werkstatt für Aktionen activists is to build stronger links between anti-nuclear activists and anti-coal activists.

“There’s always been so much focus on atomic and renewable energy, we’re trying to talk about coal – the local issues and the climate context,” said Patrick Stotzel, a university student in Cologne who says his top priority is the local anti-brown coal movement. “We’re trying to talk about the health impacts, which hasn’t been very successful in Germany so far. We’re influenced a lot by the climate movement in North America and Great Britain, their direct actions against mines and power plants.”

Hurtig and others got involved with the brown coal issue through a 2010 Climate Camp in a town near another RWE brown coal mine, Garzweiler II. The group now fighting to curb or close the mine has coalesced just in the past couple years. They’ve bought a house in the small city of Duren bearing cracks that they say were caused by subsidence of the land when the underground aquifer was drained for mining operations. Gudrun Zentis, a state legislator with the Green Party with offices in Duren, noted that such subsidence is common in the area and widely attributed to mining. She often hears from residents who are having an increasingly difficult time securing compensation from RWE Power.

Since the 1940s, more than 25,000 people in scores of rural villages in Lausitz, Germany’s other brown coal mining region in the former East Germany, have been relocated to urban high-rise housing projects despite fierce opposition, according to the website Vattenfall Watch.

Many of the communities forcefully uprooted were from the traditional Sorb or Wend Slavic cultures, who are considered indigenous to the area. Brown coal has contributed significantly to a decline of Sorb/Wend language and traditions.

photo of a man standing before an industial mine
Activist Florian Hurtig moved to Duren in northwest Germany to fight the expansion of brown coal mining. Photo by Kari Lydersen.

Activists say that opposition to brown coal mining seems to be less prominent in North-Rhine Westphalia than in the east. “RWE is very connected to politicians and they have a lot of lobbyists, and nearly everyone in these cities feels in some way dependent on RWE,” said Stotzel. “But now that’s changing. People are realizing RWE is not the best partner.”

Hurtig said the activists have received much support – including food donations and access to showers – from residents of the town of Buir near the occupied forest. Yellow ribbons, which have become a symbol of opposition to brown coal, decorate yards and adorn trees in the forest leading to the occupation camp. “They tell us, ‘If I were still young I would be doing what you’re doing,’” said Hurtig.

Asked how people in the US and other countries could show solidarity with the activists opposing brown coal mining in Germany, Stotzel said it was all about thinking globally and acting locally. “It makes no sense to destroy the climate [by getting on] airplanes to go fight against coal in other continents. There are coal mines and power plants too in America and also the activities against fracking and Keystone XL pipeline,” he said. “So it’s mostly about solidarity, networking, and learning from each other. It’s very important for political activists to know that everywhere around the world people are fighting big business and their extractive industries because you can’t change the world on you own.”

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