Polish state-owned companies will stop buying coal from Russia, Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin has announced.
Imports of Russian coal to Poland have been growing over recent years. In 2018, the last full year for which data are available, over 13 million tonnes were imported – the highest ever annual quantity and two and a half times more than in 2015.
This has prompted protests by Polish miners, who fear that imports are replacing local production and putting jobs at risk. Last week, around 100 miners blocked railway tracks in southern Poland that they said were being used to deliver Russian coal.
The deputy prime minister, speaking to RMF24, explained that imports have been needed to make up for the shortfall in production caused by the domestic industry’s “difficult situation”, with production falling to its lowest level in five years last year.
Poland also imports coal from Columbia, Mozambique, Australia and the US. Yet, it is Russian coal – which makes up the majority of imports – which draws most attention, especially given the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s efforts to wean Poland off dependence on Russian gas.
The Polish government has previously raised the possibility of imposing an import duty or an outright ban on Russian coal coming into the European Union, saying that buying it indirectly support for Russian President Putin.
“If we were not EU members, we could introduce an embargo,” Sasin told RMF24. “Yet now we can only act in agreement with the entire EU, and there is no political will for this [embargo].”
Until now, importers of Russian coal included PGE, Poland’s biggest energy player, and Węglokoks, the largest Polish coal exporter. Yet Sasin, who heads a ministry that oversees companies majority owned by the state, assured that future deliveries have been frozen.
The minister said that private companies would be free to continue importing coal from abroad, which he admitted is “better quality and cheaper”. It was up to Polish mines to improve output so that their coal becomes “more competitive, better” and the mines “more efficient”, Sasin added.
Poland has struggled to wean itself off coal, which accounts for almost 80% of its power production, the highest share in the EU.
Across the EU, hard coal generation fell by 32% last year, according to a new report by think tanks Agora Energiewende and Sandbag. But in Poland it dropped by only 4%. The report pins this on a “lack of alternative generation options in the Polish energy mix”.
Meanwhile, whereas energy prices have been dropping in most European countries, by 5 euro/MWh average, in Poland they have risen by 1.3 euro/MWh, in part due to rising carbon emissions prices. Last year, Poland imported a record amount of electricity, meeting a tenth of its domestic demand through imports.
Yet, under its current government, Poland does not share the EU’s enthusiasm for reducing emissions. Its National Energy and Climate Plan, submitted to the EU Commission in December 2019, projects that coal will still account for 56% of power production by 2030.
Poland is the only country yet to sign up to the EU’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050, arguing that it needs stronger guarantees of financial support to assist in its difficult transition away from coal.
Hard coal, which powered Poland through decades of industrialisation, has a special status as the stuff of economic progress. Yet, in recent years worries have grown around air quality, damage to the countryside, and the black fuel’s economic viability.
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She also contributes regularly to The Economist and Al Jazeera, and has also written for The Times, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.