Coal miners wary of a greener future – POLITICO

BUCHAREST — Sebastian Tirintica descends 300 meters underground in one of Romania’s oldest coal mines to go to work. For eight hours, he operates an industrial lift transporting his fellow miners and materials deep under the earth.

But in a Europe that’s moving to rapidly decarbonize, it’s a job without a future.

That’s why a wind energy company offered him and a few of his colleagues a different path: retrain as a technician to fix wind turbine blades. It’s a rare opportunity — but he doesn’t think the new offer makes the switch worth it, so for now Tirintica is sticking with coal.

“We all understand that going into new fields requires sacrifices, but sometimes those sacrifices need to be calculated,” he said.

Tirintica’s hesitation is a sign of the enormous social challenges the EU faces in greening the economies of the bloc’s coal-intensive regions — something that is key to Ursula von der Leyen’s promised European Green Deal. Poland, citing the huge costs involved, is balking at agreeing to become climate neutral by 2050. Other countries like Romania — which have agreed to the mid-century goal — also face major disruption.

“Both my colleagues and I, the younger generation of miners, realize that our chances to receive a pension by retiring from the mining industry are very small” — Romanian coal miner Sebastian Tirintica

It’s difficult to change people’s perspectives and reassure them, and obstacles in accessing EU funds to help such pilot projects get off the ground make the transition even more difficult.

Tirintica, 33, knows the coal industry is dying but he’s trying to hedge his bets.

“Both my colleagues and I, the younger generation of miners, realize that our chances to receive a pension by retiring from the mining industry are very small,” Tirintica said. “Unfortunately, mining is on its way out, economically, structurally. Everything is going badly.”

Tirintica has been working in the coal sector since 2014 in Romania’s Jiu Valley region — once a coal economic powerhouse. He was one of 10 miners invited to see how his skills could be adapted to match the needs of the renewable energy industry or those of the energy distribution sector. It’s the test phase of a pilot project spearheaded by the Romanian Wind Energy Association (RWEA).

An entrance pit of the Lupeni coal mine in Romania | Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

Changing mindsets

The association’s goal is to get EU funds and strike a deal with an existing renewable energy skills academy located by Romania’s Black Sea coast that could retrain about 100 miners as part of an extended pilot project. The long-term goal is a 10-year project to reskill 800 miners per year. For now, private companies will finance the handful of miners involved in the early trial.

“There’s no one else who came to our work to say, ‘Come on, let’s do something for these people,’” Tirintica said. “The project is good because it doesn’t make us waiters or bartenders — it trains us to work in a sector of the future and to remain in the energy field.”

Yet when it came to the bottom line, Tirintica said “no.” The job offer would have kept him abroad working four weeks in Germany followed by one week at home. He makes €900 a month now and his new salary would have come to around €1,300.

Tirintica, a father of two, said he knows he could earn more than that working abroad in other sectors if he wanted to. The deal wasn’t enough for him to be away from home for so long.

Tirintica and other younger miners feel they can still switch jobs at a later date, taking advantage of the EU’s freedom of movement.

Others who have been working in coal mines for much longer are angry at the prospect of their industry dying, and are fighting for social protection.

Romania still has about 15,000 coal miners, according to the European Commission; Poland has the most in the EU, about 100,000.

“There are some who are still resisting change and say: ‘We are miners and miners we will be all our lives,’ and others who realize that the world is transforming, the energy transition is happening and they can be part of it from the start,” said Sebastian Enache, business development manager at renewable energy company Monsson, a partner in the retraining project.

Romania gets about a quarter of its energy needs from coal-fired electricity but the coal sector, together with the mines, have been shrinking for years. State-owned Complexul Energetic Hunedoara, which owns both mines and power plants, filed for insolvency last month while Complexul Energetic Oltenia, another state-owned company, saw massive strikes earlier this year, with miners calling for pay rises and better working conditions.

Romania still has about 15,000 coal miners, according to the European Commission; Poland has the most in the EU, about 100,000.

Train wagons loaded with coal sit on the tracks in Rybnik, Poland | Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to Poland, the country went through a deep restructuring of its coal industry in the 1990s which saw hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, and many mining communities lost their reason for existing, said Tomasz Rogala, the president of coal lobby group Euracoal and head of the management board of Poland’s biggest coal company, state-owned PGG.

“That’s why this experience is very negative in people’s minds,” he said.

Rogala said that the key is to manage people’s sense of security as they undergo the transition.

Money problems

That’s exactly what the von der Leyen Commission pledged to do as part of its flagship European Green Deal, including by creating a Just Transition Mechanism combining public and private funding — up to an estimated €100 billion — meant to help carbon-intensive regions shift to greener forms of production.

But getting it right won’t be easy, based on the challenges facing the pilot project led by the Romanian Wind Energy Association.

In July, RWEA presented its project at the EU’s Coal Regions in Transition Platform, which was set up in 2017 to help coal-dependent regions manage a shift to a low-carbon future. It brings together Commission and local officials to discuss the regions’ transition challenges and offers finding possibilities.

Despite praise for its project, RWEA is still fishing for funding.

“Everyone wants to give us money but everyone says it’s not in their pocket,” said Enache, explaining the challenges he and his colleagues have been facing. “The possibility to hire exists, the need exists, industry is open — we are looking for funds.”

Mihai Bălan, policy officer at RWEA, admitted that “we won’t save the whole region with the renewable energy industry — but we are doing our part.”

But not everyone thinks that the project is the best possible use of EU funds.

Cristina Prună, a Romanian MP from the opposition Save Romania Union, said it’s good the project is offering alternatives for coal miners but warned it’s not an answer to transform the country’s coal-intensive regions. She said EU funds should go toward boosting transport infrastructure in those regions to better connect them to the rest of the country and spur longer-term investments.

“If there will be funds wasted on entrepreneurship training for miners or unsustainable projects that will only work as long as they have European funding and then end up in ruins, then they will certainly not produce any change at the end of the day,” Prună said.

Mihai Bălan, policy officer at RWEA, admitted that “we won’t save the whole region with the renewable energy industry — but we are doing our part.”

It’s the environmental impact of coal that is driving Brussels’ push to halt its use and help miners find other jobs.

Climate worries are not really on Tirintica’s mind, he said when asked. “No, to be honest, my biggest concern is financial stability for me and my family.”

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