Coal and the religious Pole

 By Nicholas Newman

Coal and the Catholic Church are two of the most powerful institutions in Poland but Pope Francis has put them into conflict with each other. #Cop21 summit in Paris and the pontiff’s environmental message that coal “must be progressively and without delay replaced” are causing deep worry in the country, which boasts Europe’s largest coal sector and one of its most religious populations…

In mid-June this year, the Pope appeared to put another nail in the coffin of Poland’s troubled coal industry with his papal encyclical on climate change, which stated that coal “needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” How this message will be received by a predominantly Catholic country so reliant upon coal remains to be seen. However, as Wojciech Kość, Editor in Chief of Cleantech (Poland) explains, Poland’s decision makers, miners and the Polish church, “might not like it, but he (Pope Francis) is seen as separate from domestic Polish energy politics.”

This was clearly demonstrated in the summer when the government, which faces national elections on October 25, also faced miners taking action to rescue loss-making coal mines amid the apparent neutrality of the Church. Kość, a long-time advocate for clean energy, says, “The trouble is, there is not a good understanding between the Polish public, government decision makers and the Church into the necessity for climate change measures.”

There is clear sympathy among priests, particularly those located in the main coal-mining region of Silesia, for the industry and its workers.

The conservative newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, has not welcomed the Pope’s message, choosing rather to see it as an anti-Polish message. However, Miroslaw Nowak, a Krakow small businessman, disagrees saying, “The Pope’s message, based on the environmental teachings of St. Francis, is very pro-Polish, and appropriate especially for the long-suffering Polish workers, forced to live and labor in some of Europe’s most polluted cities.”

The Church

Around 35 million out of a population of approximately 38 .4 million are members of the Polish Catholic Church, which itself supported miners and Solidarity’s efforts to liberate the country from Russian rule. On the ground, “They (i.e. Catholic priests) have much sympathy for the traditionally deeply-religious miners, and the trouble is, like much of Polish society, they do not have a deep, clear understanding of the importance of climate-change issues”, says Wojciech Kość.

The higher echelons of the church are stressing the general case for humanity and nature. For example, the Vatican’s ambassador to Poland, Celestino Migliore, speaking at a press conference in Warsaw on June 18, three days after the papal encyclical, said, “I am reminded of previous Popes including, John Paul II, that have all discussed the environmental message in a wider context.”

In addition, the Polish Church’s official spokesman, Marcin Przeiswewski, in reference to the encyclical observed, “it was keenly anticipated in the Church. There had been much discussion in preparation for this brave and unique message, because it was dedicated to both humanity and to nature.”

For economic and social reasons, Poland's government is unlikely to close its already declining loss-making coal mining industry in the near future. The government is not going to put thousands of people out of work. It takes to time to shift away from fossil fuels

Views of the People

Today, many Polish people have mixed feelings towards coal miners. Joanna Kurek, a retired teacher, believes that miners in communist times “were treated like aristocrats, getting access to foreign holidays and western goods in special shops which we could not enter.” Indeed many Poles today have little sympathy for miners. Miroslaw Nowak, a small businessman, says, “Gone are the days of life-long employment with one employer. Today work means changing jobs several times and even working abroad in Britain or Germany .”


Poland’s environment, especially in the heavily industrialized and polluted regions of Silesia and Krakow, suffered enormous damage to its water, air, soil quality and forests under the communist central planned economy. Pollution and degradation became normal. “Because of this, environmentalists find it very hard to raise awareness amongst the public and politicians,” says Wojciech Kość. However, Katarzyna Guzek, Poland’s Greenpeace representative, is more positive. According to the organization’s surveys, she claims that “more than two-thirds of Polish people (70%) want an energy policy supporting the development of renewable energy, compared with support for coal and lignite (18%) and nuclear (16%).”

Reasons for a pro-coal policy

For economic and social reasons, Poland’s government is unlikely to close its already declining loss-making coal mining industry in the near future. Wojciech Kość amplifies the point, saying, “Partially it is social. The government is not going to put thousands of people out of work. It takes to time to shift away from fossil fuels and even super-green Germany is still building coal power stations!”

Perhaps more significantly, there is the energy security issue. Politicians are wary of doing anything that will increase the country’s dependency on Russian gas imports. Poland burns over 50 million tons of coal a year, helping to produce nearly 90 percent of the installed capacity of some 378 GW in 2012. Poland burns more coal than any European nation other than Germany, while having the lowest reliance on natural gas among the EU’s 10 largest economies, according to International Energy Agency data.

In fact, former Polish Prime Minister and now President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has argued that rather than give up on coal, Europe needs to “rehabilitate” coal’s dirty image and use it to break Russia’s grip on energy supply. “Though the EU will only permit investment in closing of coal mines, not opening new ones,” observes Tobiasz Adamczewski.

The trouble is that Polish coal is much more expensive than coal imported from abroad and world coal prices have dropped below $50 a metric ton compared with $75 a year ago. As Tobiasz Adamczewski argues, “there is no business case to invest in coal in Poland and it would be better to run away!”


While some of Poland’s politicians are wondering how they can heed the environmental message and still be re-elected, many remain wedded to coal for national security reasons and the social and economic consequences of mine closures. “That’s why the Polish government is in no rush to implement European climate and Energy regulations”, observes retired teacher, Joanna Kurek. She adds, “It is very unlikely, that coal mining will end tomorrow. If they made such a decision, many politicians would lose their seats.”

A minority of politicians have resisted the coal lobby as demonstrated in recent votes during the last Polish Parliamentary session, when support for and against coal policies crossed party lines. “There is certainly a small number of MPs who support either renewables or/and nuclear,” says Tobiasz Adamczewski. The Polish Parliament has, like Britain, only one Green Party (Partia Zieloni) MP at present — Anna Grodzka.

This is the background to the government’s decision in June, to approve a multi-billion euro plan to stimulate the economically depressed main coal-mining region of Silesia around the city of Katowice, where unemployment runs at 20 percent in places. The government is taking urgent action to reform and provide the economic aid to enable state-run coal mines to continue to operate and to protect jobs.

“To compete with the incumbent government, the leading Polish opposition party, `Law and Justice,’ has played the populist pro-coal card, with many candidates making speeches that coal should be the main source of energy production and that renewables should not get support,” says Katarzyna Guzek of Greenpeace.

Things won’t change overnight

Today Poland depends on coal for some 88 percent of its power, with just 7 percent from renewables targeted to rise to 15 percent by 2020, and there will be no early halt to hard coal and lignite mining. In fact, states Wojciech Kość, “I have seen government scenarios that Poland will still depend on coal for 50 percent of its power-generation needs by 2050, with the rest coming from renewables and perhaps from nuclear.”

Phasing out coal power generation and mining requires the state to accept relinquishing its interest in the economy since four out of five functioning coal-mining companies are fully or partially under state-control. Lubelski Węgiel Bogdanka S.A is the only profitable coal mine and it is in the private sector.

In the power sector, state-owned power plants accounted for 26 GW of Poland’s 378 GW of installed capacity in 2012. However, the boards of state-owned energy companies are packed with former top civil servants and retired ministers. “In a sense, such boards are a retirement homes for politicians, who usually have no expertise in running a business and who have no interest in changing things,” suggests Miroslaw Nowak, a private sector businessman.


It may be that the remarkable charisma of Pope Francis will exert a special authority upon his large and devoted following in Poland, but there will be some significant heartache in regions and classes for whom coal has long been a central feature of their social and economic life. It will undoubtedly take some time before Poland’s coal mining sector becomes smaller and power stations become cleaner than they are today.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.