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Polish Coal Miners at Center of EU Climate Tussle

European Union leaders meet this week in Poland to discuss fighting climate change. But as the EU seeks to slash greenhouse gas emissions, Polish coal miners are worried -- and defiant.


Mining is a way of life in Poland

Coal provides 94 percent of Poland's energy and some 117,000 jobs, a fact that's come into focus as the country prepares to host global talks on a new climate-saving pact.

"Everyone wants to live in healthy air," said Waclaw Czerkawski, deputy head of Poland's Trade Union of Miners. "But you have to find some kind of balance, and you can't do that at the expense of the economy, industry and jobs."

Poland's government agrees. Together with other ex-communist EU nations and Italy, it has threatened to block plans to cut the bloc's carbon dioxide pollution to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's initial proposal would boost domestic electricity prices by up to 90 percent, the Poles complain.

Sarkozy and eastern European leaders are to meet on Dec. 6 to iron out differences, just as delegates from nearly 200 countries discuss new steps to fight global warming in Poznan, Poland.

Coal mining a Polish tradition

For Poland, Europe's biggest coal producer and eastern Europe's largest economy, coal mining isn't just a source of electricity and jobs, but a way of life.

Vattenfall power plant

The EU is looking for ways to cut CO2 emissions

In the coal-rich Silesia region, mining dates back to the Middle Ages.

"From the simple miner to the highest union official, we've always thought mining should be stronger because it's the basis of energy in Poland," Czerkawski said. "There are no other sources of energy.

"Every attempt to close down a mine comes with protest, because it's not only a place of work for the miner, but the entire community," he told DPA news agency.

Poland and other EU newcomers from central and eastern Europe want credit for reducing CO2 emissions in the 1990s, when their highly-polluting communist-era industries collapsed. They also demand the EU pay more attention to the economic situation in less affluent member states.

In its dispute with Brussels, Poland rejected a proposal that would allow some free CO2 emission permits until 2015. France had hoped the proposal would sway the country in favor of the climate package, but Polish officials claimed the proposal didn't guarantee low electricity prices.

Other EU countries "don't understand"

Czerkawski said the EU's demands come from countries that don't understand Poland's predicament, and how indispensable coal is to Poland's energy sector.

"Those countries can't understand our problems, because those problems are already behind them," Czerkawski said.

Blocks of coal

Some in the industry say coal is the energy of the future

In communist-era Poland, nearly 500,000 coal workers enjoyed generous benefits and prestige as the elite of the proletariat masses. Coal was in such high demand that miners were made to work on Saturdays and the industry was so vital that they were given their own national holiday.

After the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, some 50 mines were shut down and thousands of jobs were cut to meet profit targets. Many in the industry say coal is still the fuel of the future, but that it needs further modernization.

Coal the energy of the future?

"Coal will still long be the main source of energy in Polish power plants," said Ryszard Fedorowski, spokesman of the Katowice Coal Holding Company.

"But we are also looking for ways to process coal to turn it into so-called clean coal. The European Union can enforce limits, but we have no fears because we're thinking of new ways."

While the industry may be looking towards the future, it is rooted in what Czerkawski calls a "very strong" sense of tradition.

"From experience, they are always ready to fight for their place of work," he said. "But it doesn't mean they're not afraid."

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