How workers prepare ahead of Germany's brown coal phaseout

As Germany's coal commission and Chancellor Angela Merkel mull over a strategy for the country's exit from coal, DW's Gero Rueter visits the Rhineland region to meet those whose livelihoods could be on the line.

"It's scary for us," says 26-year-old Miriam Goebbels. She has been working for the energy giant RWE for over 10 years. Now she's responsible for repairing the company's coal excavation machines and hoisting equipment.

Nature and Environment | 03.01.2019

She has a lot of questions about the face of her future, about what form it will take and whether it will still be possible to build a life in the region. But despite the uncertainty, she's not angry about Germany's decision to phase out the use of coal in its energy production. "Protecting the climate is important," she says.

The industrial mechanic trusts the federal government's coal commission, which by the end of February is set to announce a plan on how Germany should manage its exit from coal.

"I'm sure they know what they're doing," Goebbels says, adding that she believes the government will take care of those working in the brown coal industry — those who stand to lose their jobs.

Read more: Thousands protest German coal phaseout

Goebbels is sure the changes will not happen overnight. After all, 40 percent of Germany's energy still comes from coal, and the mines will also need to be cleaned up and left in a safe condition. 

"I think there's still some time before I have to look for other work," Goebbels says. She feels she is flexible enough to work in another field — "that's why we keep educating ourselves."

But some of her colleagues see it differently. "They're picturing the worst case scenario," she tells DW. "But I don't think that really helps."

Lobbyists criticize focus on coal

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned the world should stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible if we're to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Claus Kuhnke agrees in principle. The 62-year-old engineer has been working for RWE for years. One of the four major energy giants, the company mines around half of all the brown coal Germany uses. Kuhnke also leads the national brown coal lobby group (DEBRIV).

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The coal phaseout "is a really important issue for us," Kuhnke tells DW. "It's impossible to get away from it — whether at home or at work. It dominates everything."

The coal commission will decide how Germany's coal phaseout will play out

Lobbyist Kuhnke is also head of the Rhineland's School of Lignite Mining from which 40 engineers and technicians graduate every year before going on to work in mining all around the country.

It is difficult for Kuhnke to imagine Germany making a quick exit from brown coal. He finds it unfair that other countries want to increase their CO2 emissions, and that other domestic sectors won't suffer as much as the coal industry as a result of environmental protection initiatives.

"I just wonder why such radical measures aren't being introduced in other sectors, too," he says. "We could think about speed limits for example — if we introduced limits of 80 kilometers per hour on motorways and 60 on smaller roads, we would use so much less fuel. But ultimately, the most radical changes fall to the coal industry."

Read more: How Germany's coal phaseout is becoming an international movement

Kuhnke and the lobby's co-leader Uwe Maaßen are arguing for a price on carbon dioxide as a central measure for climate protection. "CO2 needs a price which is recognized at least across the G20 countries," Maaßen, an economist, says.

The two lobbyists are not keen to discuss the costs that arise from the CO2 emitted by coal power stations.

According to Germany's environment ministry, power stations in the Rhineland cause 100 million euros worth of environmental damage per day – statistics Kuhnke rejects.

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Coal mining comes to an end in Germany

Coal phaseout as an opportunity for the region?

"We all have a responsibility towards the next generation," says localmayor Georg Gelhausen, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party. 

The small community has worked with energy giant RWE for decades. Around 100 families' livelihoods come directly from mining work, Gelhausen says. Now the region is facing huge changes.

Read more: Growing up in Germany's Ruhr Valley coal mining district

The head of the local authority, Michael Kreuzberg (CDU), sits on the coal commission, convened by Chancellor Angela Merkel. With help from the federal government and from the EU, Kreuzberg wants to create a region that serves as a model for other areas leaving mining behind. His vision is of "Europe's greatest transformation," an area relying strongly on renewable energy sources.

"I'm optimistic. We are ready to turn the page," says Antje Grothus, who is on the coal commission as a representative of the citizens who will be affected.

"With the exit from black coal, we have seen that this can work," she says. For her, it's important to maintain social harmony in the region: "We can say goodbye to brown coal with dignity."

The end of black coal mining in Germany

The last shift

This will be a melancholy and nostalgic Christmas for the people of Bottrop, especially for the last coal miners and their families. Three days before Christmas Eve, the Prosper-Haniel coal mine — the last black coal mine in Germany — is set to close. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was gifted the last piece of "black gold" to be brought up and see the light of day.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

Black gold

The coal was initially stored outside for days, like here with the Prosper-Haniel tower in the background. Then it was usually taken by train to the nearest port where it was loaded onto barges or ships to be taken to consumers; a large portion of it was shipped overseas. German hard coal was in demand worldwide for its quality, as long as the price was right.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

Holding together proudly

The work in the coal mine was not only well paid, the miners were also held in high esteem. Their dirty, exhausting and dangerous work welded the miners together. Even now, they all call one another mate ("kumpel"). Their solidarity and camaraderie were always a reason for professional pride as can be seen here in this photo taken in Bottrop's Prosper-Haniel mine.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

Working and living

The miner operators built housing for the miners in the immediate vicinity of the pits. In the gardens, workers often kept chickens and pigs. Sometimes they'd even find room for a pigeon coop. Meanwhile, these houses have become very popular. Having a garden in the city is no small luxury.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

Mates from Anatolia

After World War II, many so-called guest workers from southern Europe and Turkey came to work in the mines alongside colleagues from Silesia and Masuria, both in today's Poland. Many of them decided to stay.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

The first cracks

The 1950s and 60s were the highpoint of the Ruhr mining industry. And yet, the first cracks in the mining business model were becoming apparent. The coal, which was initially near the surface, soon had to be dug out deeper and deeper — up to 1,500 meters underground. That was very expensive and German coal gradually became less competitive on the international market.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

Bad for the environment

For decades the Ruhr area was notorious for its bad air. If you lived near a coking plant, freshly laundered sheets would turn dirty if you hung them out on the washing line. The image here depicts a skyline of coal, smokestacks, and smoke in Oberhausen — not far from Bottrop. Today, few people in the area miss these consequences of the coal business.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

Unstable ground

Even after coal mining is discontinued, it will continue to play an important role in the lives of the people of Ruhr Valley. Time and again, the earth opens up and houses, roads or railway lines are badly damaged by the notoriously unstable ground.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

The work is never done

In the last 150 years, the Ruhr area has sunk in places by up to 25 meters (82 feet). Without intervention, the groundwater would rise again, transforming the area into a huge lake. So the water has to be pumped out — continuously. This legacy is sometimes referred to as an "eternal cost" for the more-than-five million people who live in the Ruhr area.

The end of black coal mining in Germany

What will remain?

The omnipresent mining towers have now been demolished for the most part. Huge areas of the former complexes have been made green. Many former industrial monuments — and there are plenty of them — have been transformed into amusement parks — the best example being the Zollverein in Essen, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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