Industry minister Jan Mládek in hole over coal mining limits

Photo: Filip Jandourek

Around 600 to 700 miners demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Industry and Trade on Thursday. But as an afterthought, they will have probably understood that they were banging at the wrong door.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Industry minister Jan Mládek might be described as the miners’ friend, or at least the best friend they are likely to find concerning the very controversial and explosive issue of whether existing environmental limits on mining brown coal should be relaxed.

The original limits date from 1991, and Mládek has suggested that they be relaxed completely at the Bílina mine, owned by ČEZ mining daughter company SeveroČeské Doly (SČD), and at the ČSA mine owned by privately owned miner, Severní Energetiká.

But Mládek, now probably relieved to be jetting off to a business boosting trip to India and Nepal, has found himself isolated on the issue and up against some tough opposition. His own party leader, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, has said that he can’t see why the ČSA limits should come down and up to 170 houses be demolished. And probably the second most powerful man in the government, ANO leader and finance minister Andrej Babiš says he see no reasons for the limits to be lifted at all.

The Czech Academy of Science has also weighed into the debate saying that the current environmental limits should stay in place for another 20 years.

Jobs and heating are the foundation of Mládek’s support for the ČSA option. Severní Energetiká says that with a change in policy the mine will close and around 3,000 jobs in the region will be lost. The figure stems from the calculation that there are 3.5 indirect jobs dependent on every mine employee.

Bílina has no such looming problems. Within its current mining limits, mining there can continue until around 2035 with the possible extra around 100 million tonnes of coal released prolonging its life span until around 2050 or 2055.

As regards heating, a finger is pointed to the around four million Czechs who rely for winter warmth on the centralized heating systems serving most major cities and the threat that coal for them might run out in the future. It would be expensive to convert these installations to other fuel and the most likely candidate, natural gas, comes overwhelmingly from Russia. Mládek’s own ministry had been working on plans to reserve at least some Czech brown coal for the heating plants and its hard to see how that could not solve that problem.

With the debate as it is, it’s hard to see Mládek getting all he wants from the Cabinet when he takes the mining limits proposal to Cabinet next month. At most, the mining limits could be dropped for the Bílina mine. No delay on a decision can be expected because the it is now firmly bound up with the Czech Republic’s long term energy framework, a blueprint for energy policy which is already seriously overdue.