Vattenfall considers exit: opencast mining expansion to be scaled back

Because of the German government’s climate plans, the energy company is questioning the planned expansion of lignite mining in Lusatia.

Dredged: the opencast lignite mine in Nochten, Saxony. Photo: dpa

There are signs of a turnaround in the dispute over lignite mining in Lusatia. After the energy company Vattenfall wanted to expand open pit mining in the two areas there, the company is now backpedaling.

For the planned Nochten II mining area in Saxony, all preparations for the resettlement of residents – such as the valuation of land for compensation payments – have been stopped, Vattenfall announced on Thursday evening. And a halt to preparations for the Welzow-Sud II mine in Brandenburg is also being considered.

A Vattenfall spokesman cited the "uncertain political environment for lignite mining and lignite-based power generation in Germany" as the reason. The outlook for Lusatian lignite – Germany’s second-largest mining area – has deteriorated dramatically in recent months, the company said. This is also due to the discussion about the future political framework, it said.

The German government had announced in December that a further 22 million metric tons of CO2 would be saved in the power sector by 2020. To achieve this, Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) had initially proposed a new levy for old coal-fired power plants. After massive protests from unions, the CDU/CSU and parts of his own party, another proposal has now been drawn up in which corporations would get money if they voluntarily shut down their power plants and only keep them on standby for bottlenecks.

Although this model saves less CO2 and is more expensive for taxpayers and electricity customers, it seems to be the way things are going at the moment. The final decision will be made Wednesday.

"Overdue admission"

But less lignite would be needed in the future in any case – and that’s what Vattenfall is responding to with its latest decision. "This is the overdue admission that the time of lignite in Germany is coming to an end," commented Greenpeace energy expert Susanne Neubronner. But postponing the resettlement is not enough.

Rene Schuster of the Cottbus environmental group agrees. "Planning security for those affected can only be had with a final decision against the Nochten 2 open pit mine," he said. In addition, he said, Vattenfall should stop its plans to sell its German lignite operations and instead "shape the gradual phase-out of coal-fired power generation."