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Germany Finds Local Coal Filthy and Irresistible

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 10/10/2018
a close up of a desert field: Mibrag mines brown coal at this open pit on the outskirts of Pödelwitz, Germany, and is looking to expand operations to the nearby town.© Marzena Skubatz for The Wall Street Journal Mibrag mines brown coal at this open pit on the outskirts of Pödelwitz, Germany, and is looking to expand operations to the nearby town.

PÖDELWITZ, Germany—On the surface, this medieval idyll of timber-framed houses resembles most villages dotting the landscape of this rural, thinly populated region of Eastern Germany.

But empty streets, overgrown lawns and silence reveal a ghost town. Three years ago, most of the village’s 140 residents agreed to leave, accepting an offer from local mining company Mibrag mbH of new homes, moving costs and an additional €75,000 ($86,000).

The company, whose open-pit mine has swallowed up much of Pödelwitz’s surroundings, wants to dig up the hamlet so it can continue excavating brown coal, a cheap, plentiful and highly polluting fossil fuel.

Unless, that is, Pödelwitz’s 27 remaining residents have their say.

“We don’t want their money. We just want to be able to live here,” said André Kremkow, a locksmith leading a campaign to spare the village and, more broadly, put an end to coal mining in Germany. Mibrag declined to comment on its plans and local resistance.

This and similar disputes around the country have drawn attention to a curious split: Though Germany has championed the use of clean energy, several German brown-coal mines are expanding, which requires government permission. And though Germany’s greenhouse-gas emissions began trending downward in 1990, emissions have climbed since 2015.

Chancellor Angela Merkel campaigned for nations to embrace emissions cuts in the 2015 Paris climate accord, but Germany conceded last year that it won’t make its own target of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2020. The European Union as a whole is expected to meet its 2020 goal.

Ms. Merkel’s government, seeking to renew its commitment to clean energy, charged a commission of 28 industry executives, environmentalists and other experts with drawing up a plan this year to phase out coal use by or before 2050. Germany’s environment ministry said it is still committed to the Paris Agreement and aims to cut coal-fired power generation by around 60% by 2030 and increase renewable energy use to 65% of consumption by that year.

Meeting emissions targets will depend on how quickly the country is willing to phase out coal mining.

“The image of Germany as a country leading on the renewable energy transition is very, very wrong,” said Laura Röllmann, a climate activist in Leipzig.

The rise in emissions and missed target have energized protesters who want a fast phaseout of coal mining.

Energy company RWE AG faced a setback last week when a court ruling delayed its planned clearing of the ancient Hambach Forest to expand a brown coal mine. Protesters had called for the preservation of the forest, some occupying trees in the forest to protect it.

Brown coal, a greasy, low-grade fuel also known as lignite, isn’t just controversial because of the greenhouse gases its burning spews into the atmosphere. It is mined in vast, open pits that devour landscapes and villages, leaving Martian vistas of desolation roamed by gigantic excavators straight out of “Mad Max”.

Germany is its largest producer. Brown coal made up about 23% of the country’s energy supply last year, and black coal another 14%, according to the Economy Ministry. Renewable energy sources made up 33%—up from 6% in 2000.

The government embraced renewable energy, especially wind, after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, when Ms. Merkel abandoned her party’s pronuclear platform and decided to shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants by 2022.

But technological and geographical limitations—wind power is fickle, not produced where it is mostly needed, and nearly impossible to store—have left the country reliant on other power sources.

Local availability makes brown coal hard to resist—in contrast, for example, to natural gas, which is more expensive and imported from countries including Russia.

“Brown coal is secure supply-wise,” said Thorston Diercks, Secretary General of the German Brown Coal Association. “And that’s why we are keeping it and have to keep it for a certain amount of time, probably a generation.”

In the eastern state of Saxony, where the country’s largest opposition party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, performed best in last year’s general election, mining is popular and a rare source of jobs.

Brown-coal mining supports between 20,000 and 30,000 jobs in the state, including positions at chemical plants, environmental activists and state officials estimate. That has led some parties, including the center-left Social Democrats, to back mining.

“People have fears, which is also reflected in the results of the AfD,” said Martin Dulig, head of the Social Democrats in Saxony. “We must be responsible for the miners and their families.”

As the coal commission shapes a phaseout plan, “The biggest challenge is a social one,” said an environment ministry spokesman. “We must create new prospects, new jobs and new sustainable structures for those who have lived off coal up to now.”

Mibrag has a permit to continue mining brown coal until 2040; government permission to dig up Pödelwitz would allow it to continue beyond then.

Opponents fear that whatever the commission decides will have little impact on the future of the tiny village. Over 300 villages were demolished for lignite mining in Germany in the past century.

This summer, Pödelwitz played host to thousands of climate activists from across the country. They pitched tents, held protests and hosted workshops on climate change.

The losses from the demolition of the village would include a Romanesque church that is around 800 years old—not insignificant in a country where wartime bombings destroyed many medieval buildings.

For Jens Hausner, a local farmer and activist, Mibrag’s compensation would never make up for the loss of personal roots.

“The worst thought,” he said, “is we can’t show our grandkids where we grew up.”

Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com

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