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Coal Not Dole, An Idea We Should Dig Up?

Turn lignite (brown coal) mine, southwest of Poland, in Lower Silesia;

 photo attribution: Anna Uciechowska.

The campaigning slogan “coal not dole” is an abiding memory to many people in the UK in their forties or above, but the outcome of the nationwide 1984-85 coal miners’ strike was defeat, and yet more job losses.  The below table, citing English and Welsh data only and not that of my adopted country of Scotland, gives the chilling overall picture of job losses in coal for the period leading up to that strike and twenty years on from it:

Leaving aside the oddity of gendered job loss statistics, a novelty to me but in the context of such a male-dominated industry perhaps a feature that can be ignored, the picture is one of devastation.  The figures for Yorkshire stand out as particularly extreme, but those for Durham, South Wales and Nottinghamshire are all above 20,000 too.  These are just the direct jobs lost, of course; a multiple of indirect jobs in these counties’ economies, dependent on coal miners’ income and UK coal supply chains, would also have been lost too.

Even in 2016 the UK miners’ struggle continues, but now – in a period when employment in the industry has virtually disappeared – the focus is on protecting miners’ pensions, as is illustrated by the below tweet:

Whereas the battle to save the UK’s coal industry was substantially lost, the story in Poland is different.  Coal remains the dominant primary source of energy and Polish government is committed to the defense of the industry’s jobs, which remain very substantial – see table below:

 

National Employment in Coal by year: Poland

Figures in 100,000 jobs, vertical axis; employment figures also shown at bottom row, below calendar year.

As can be seen, following a period of precipitous decline through the 1990s, during which time more than 250,000 jobs were lost, overall employment figures reached some level of stability since the year 2000, finally dipping below 100,00 only last year.

 

Polish coal reserves remain very substantial: the country “has hard coal reserves totalling 19.1 billion tonnes, mainly located in Upper Silesia and in the Lublin basin. Mineable lignite reserves amount to almost 1.6 billion tonnes”; the relevant coal basins (both high calorific value, hard coal and soft, brown coal: lignite) are located across the southern half of the country, see map below:

Importantly for the future viability of the industry, 44% of Poland’s hard coal is coking coal, i.e. the very high calorific form of coal used in the production of steel. Coking coal commands a significant price premium over non-coking, or thermal, coal; moreover, prices have recently been booming: over “the past month (quote dated 7.9.16) the price of coking (metallurgical) coal has joined iron ore, surging more than 40% to the highest levels since early 2013.”

The financial vitality of Poland’s coking coal subsector is illustrated by the following Bloomberg report of 30.8.2016: “JSW SA surged to a two-year high on Tuesday after Poland’s biggest coking coal producer outlined its investment and cost-cutting plans….The stock jumped as much as 26 percent (in one day). The state-controlled company is the top performer in the Warsaw’s WIG30 Index’s this year with a 268 percent gain.”

However, and despite ongoing weakness in price, the lignite coal basins are also important given the imbalance in Poland’s downstream energy infrastructure: whilst “more than half of Polish power stations are over 25 years old…. The....”  Both lignite and hard (coking & thermal) coal support 10,000s of Polish jobs.

Many of these jobs have been under threat, assailed by the twin threat of falling coal prices (the resurgence of the coking coal price being a recent and largely unexpected phenomenon) and EU pressure for Poland to move away from coal and transition to other fuels.  Poland has obvious geopolitical reasons not to wish to become more reliant on Russian natural gas, an obvious form of available supply in eastern Europe, and has recently substituted away from imports of Russian oil to alternative supplies from newly-available Iranian oil .

The poverty caused by the closure of Polish coal capacity is already fierce. Strikes in 2015 helped to protect the industry and its workers from further pain and economic deprivation.  The below quote shows how bad the situation has come, let’s fight to protect Polish coal jobs and the colliery communities, and not let the UK nightmare mass unemployment and community dismemberment be replicated in Poland:

Poland’s jobless plunder coal trains

“Police say organized gangs and freelance scavengers, drawn from Poland’s army of unemployed, risk death or dismemberment to steal coal from trains as they cross southern Silesia, the country’s industrial heartland. 

Some 200,000 coal miners have lost their jobs in a series of pit closures since the 1990s — leaving many former workers struggling to get by in this region near the Czech border where unemployment in some areas stands around 30 per cent.

State railway PKP says it loses more than 10 million zlotys ($3.2 million) a year in theft of coal and the resulting damage to equipment.

'(Coal thieves) have been run over by trains, and buried under piles of coal or coal dust spilling out of rail cars,' says Silesia’s police spokesman Andrzej Gaska.

'This is a pathological region — it’s former miners who’ve lost their jobs. They don’t have anything to live on, and the tracks are the closest source of income,' said one railway police officer.”

 

Disclaimer:

The above blogpost is solely the personal opinion of the author, not his employer. 

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Comment by Martin Brown on September 9, 2016 at 11:46
Good to see someone is asking the tough questions about jobs and communities. If we don't provide practical solutions along with ideological ones we leave the gate open for extremists- see like Trump.

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