WARSAW/LONDON – (Reuters) – Poland, one of the heaviest polluters in Europe, will become even dirtier now that its shale gas ambitions have faded and it turns to cheap domestic lignite coal to secure its energy supply.
Poland already relies on coal to produce more than 90 percent of its electricity and is home to the European installation that emits the most carbon dioxide – utility PGE’s lignite power plant in Belchatow.
Its choice of fuel now could determine its energy and environmental situation for decades to come, given that Poland needs to build new power stations to replace ageing plants and cope with future demand as its power system operates close to capacity.
The government and utilities, encouraged by firm popular support, are looking to domestic lignite reserves as a cheap way to fuel that new capacity and reduce imports of Russian gas.
“Looking at Poland’s limited reserves of gas and oil, lignite coal has to be perceived as the stabilizing factor for Poland’s energy safety,” Poland’s economy ministry said in an email, adding Poland’s lignite reserves will last for 200 to 300 years.
Poland had aspired to become Europe’s main producer of cleaner shale gas, but its ambitions for a U.S.-style boom were thwarted when estimates of its shale gas reserves were slashed by over 90 percent.
Potential shale investors including Exxon Mobil, Marathon Oil and Talisman Energy quit Poland, which then set its sights on boosting lignite production.
Lignite is a soft brown fuel, considered to be the lowest and cheapest grade with a carbon content of around 25-35 percent.
“Lignite is the cheapest fuel at the moment. Moreover, its price is the most stable and predictable compared to hard coal, gas or oil. I think lignite is becoming Poland’s raison d’état,” said Zbigniew Bryja, the head of ZE PAK’s mining unit.
Warsaw-listed ZE PAK is Poland’s second-largest lignite power producer, and the company has an exploration license for a part of a lignite field whose potential reserves together with smaller neighboring fields total 3 billion tones, more than Poland’s total lignite output since World War Two.
Environmental groups worry that the newly discovered appetite for lignite will make Poland even dirtier. Poland’s emissions already exceed Spain’s even though its population and economy are smaller.
“If all these projects kick off, Poland will become even more polluted,” said Michal Wilczynski, Poland’s former chief geologist.
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