It once powered the German economy, but now, the coal industry looks set to be consigned to history. If the last pits are closed by 2018 as planned, it will mark an end to a centuries' long chapter in German history.
The decision early Tuesday by government coalition leaders in Berlin to end state subsidies for coal production draws a line under an issue that has long been brewing in German politics.
Coal mining didn't just power Germany's industrial revolution in the 19th century, it also helped spawn the country's oldest party, the center-left Social Democratic Party which has long rejected a complete shutting down of the industry. Coal mining also played a leading role in helping to forge Germany's post-Second World War economic miracle.
But in fact, the shine came off coal a long time ago. Even though Germany ranks seventh worldwide in coal production; first in the EU and fourth worldwide in coal consumption, Germany's mining sector has been heavily dependent on subsidies ever since the coal crisis of 1958 and clearly could not be supported indefinitely.
The first coal was mined in Germany almost 900 years ago, but coal mining only came into its own in the 19th century when industrialization transformed the mining regions of the Ruhr Valley and the Saarland into Germany's industrial heartland.
By 1900, Germany was a chief producer of coal, after the United States and Britain. But the 1950s saw the industry plunge into crisis, with coal largely replaced in domestic as well as industrial and transportation usage by oil, natural gas or electricity produced from renewable energy sources. Coal's use went into steady decline as oil-burning and nuclear-powered generating plants became more common.
One by one, the country's pits were closed down. From 1960 to 1980, the number of mines fell from 146 to 39. By 2000, only 12 were still operating, with output down to 20.7 million tons in 2006 from 150 million tons in 1957 -- a development which undid the very fabric of post-war Germany with its mass lay-offs. While some 610,000 were employed in the mines in 1977, the figure was well under 50,000 in recent years.
Coal as a political issue
Not surprisingly, coal played a key role in shaping Germany's 20th century history, with the emergence of coal miners' labor unions which maintained close ties to the political left.
Its influence on social history aside, the rich coal seams around the Ruhr and the Saar provided the fuel on which Germany's industrial expansion was based -- an expansion that contributed to both World Wars. It was only with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community that the tense relationship between Germany and France over natural resources finally found a peaceful resolution.
In 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded by France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to pool their steel and coal resources. This first step towards cross-border co-operation is still seen as a direct catalyst for the EEC and the single European market -- an agreement which formed the backbone of today's EU.
Post reunification, annual production and consumption dropped considerably over the first half of the 1990s, largely due to restructuring that occurred following the integration of former East Germany into a unified Germany.
The energy question
And it now seems that the final straw has come. While the subsidy issue has been a subject of recurrent debate in past decades, coal mining has also became inextricably linked with environmental and energy issues -- such as health, air pollution, and contribution to global warming.
The latest drive to reach a compromise on the industry's future came against the backdrop of a growing dilemma about Germany's energy needs.
Besides the increasing worries about climate change, Germany's growing energy worries have also been fueled by last year's surge in oil prices along with increasing concerns about the security of supplies in the wake of last year's so-called gas war -- especially after Russia's Gazprom's fight with Eastern Europe over energy contracts.
Now that the coal issue appears to be resolved, the next question for Germany's political and business leaders is what will replace the estimated 20 per cent gap in the nation's energy mix that will emerge once the nation has dismantled its nuclear energy apparatus around the end of the next decade.