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  • Schuyler Beltrami

The Battle for Lützerath: Big Coal vs. Small Village

Lützerath, with the sprawling Garzweiler mine in the background. (Photo: WDR)

A small village in Western Germany has been purchased by one of Germany’s largest energy companies in order to expand one of the country’s largest coal mines. The village, which will be completely razed in the process, has become the focus of environmental groups from around Europe.

Mining for the “Lowest Form of Coal”

It is not often that a village with only eight people makes international headlines. The small German village of Lützerath has managed to do exactly that; even if it was not from its own doing. Located in the Western German province of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lützerath has become the center of the long-running debate in Germany about the future of coal production in the country. The village, which only housed eight residents at the end of 2022, was purchased by the German energy company RWE, which began the process of disassembling the village in 2020. The plan to remove Lützerath was in line with RWE’s plan to expand one of Germany’s largest coal mines, the Garzweiler mine, which began operation in the 1980s. The coal mine is predominately used for the mining of lignite, a form of coal which is considered by many to be the “lowest form of coal”, owing to its unusually high moisture rate and low heat content. This leads to the burning of lignite emitting the same amount, or even higher amounts in some situations, of carbon than other forms of coal, while producing the least amount of energy. Furthermore, multiple studies have found that the dust which comes off of processed lignite includes radioactive materials which remain present in the air far after the burning-off process is complete. Despite this, the market for lignite coal has remained constant and the Garzweiler mine was expanded from an area of 25 sq. mi. (66 sq. km.) to 44 sq. mi. (114 sq. km.). Part of this expansion has meant that the village of Lützerath would need to be destroyed. Since the beginning of the mine’s operation, at least 20 villages have needed to be destroyed in order to mine the coal, and at least 30,000 people have lost their homes. Part of the destruction of an earlier village even included a 12th-Century Romanesque church, which had been declared a national heritage site by the German government. The removal of Lützerath has provoked environmental advocates throughout the country and has led to weeks of intense standoffs between police and protestors.

A Village with a Movement on its Side

Just before the end of the year, Eckardt Heukamp, became the last farmer in Lützerath to sell his land to German energy company RWE and move from the village. When he left, however, the village was far from empty. For over two years, environmental activists have moved into the village in varying numbers, occupying abandoned houses, setting up camps and even erecting treehouses in an attempt to make the village into a sort of ultra-green fortress. All in all, around 1000 activists are based in the tiny village, some from far outside of Germany. Speaking to German state media outlet DW, David Dresen, the spokesman for All Villages Must Stay, an organization dedicated to preserving villages in the path of Germany’s sprawling lignite mines, said that it is “incredibly good to feel the support of a huge movement”. “There are people here from all over Europe, and we’ve received expressions of solidarity from all over the world”, he continued. The activists have two main enemies in their sights: RWE, and the German Government. The deal to expand the Garzweiler mine into Lützerath was approved by the German Government in 2020, but was placed on hold due to numerous lawsuits by villagers and environmental action groups. Eventually, in 2022, with court decisions from local, regional, and national courts favoring RWE, the German Government came to a deal with the energy conglomerate. Coal would be completely phased out of the German energy mix by 2030, thus preserving five villages to the north of Lützerath, but Lützerath itself would have to be sacrificed. After this compromise was reached, Mona Neubaur, the Economic and Climate Minister for the province, said that the regional government must “acknowledge the reality” of the expansion of the lignite mine. Environmental groups, such as Fridays for Future and Campact, have been appealing to the regional and national government to “pull the emergency brake” to save Lüzterath, but to no avail. According to police, as many as 300 activists remain in the village, while environmental groups say they still have as many as 700 present in Lützerath.

The Slow Death of German Coal

The occupation of tiny Lützerath by environmental activists is just the latest chapter in a long series of battles between Big Coal interests in Germany and environmentalism in a country with the Greens as a major partner in the ruling coalition. Until 2021, Germany had a planned phase-out date of 2038 for the end of coal production and usage in the country, a target date which was far later than many of Germany’s Western European neighbors and put it on a pace shared only with Poland, Europe’s largest producer of usable coal. German environmental groups had been pushing for an immediate end to all coal-burning activities in the country, but with the beginning of the War in Ukraine and the end of German dependence on Russian gas, the German Government cleared the path for more coal usage in the country to make up for the gap left by the phasing-out of Russian gas. Germany was one of Europe’s largest users of Russian gas and many experts both within the country and abroad predicted a hard winter for German industry and private citizens, leaving the Government no choice but to keep coal-burning power plants online. But, the expected difficult winter of Germans freezing in their own homes and massive power plants being placed offline did not come to pass. A mixture of increased gas imports from other countries, such as Norway, Canada, and the United States, combined with an unseasonably warm winter to allow Germany to beat even its most optimistic goals of energy usage for the winter. All in all, coal played a very small role in keeping the lights on in Europe’s largest economy. Then came a report from the German Institute for Economic Research in 2021 which showed that the prospective lignite which would come from an expansion of the Garzweiler mine into Lützerath would not only not comply with German climate targets set forth after the signing of the Paris Climate Accords in 2015, but would have a negligible impact for the local economy and for Germany’s overall climate mix. This made many environmental advocacy groups in Germany demand the government to halt the expansion of the mine. As of right now, however, the village of Lützerath still stands to be demolished in the coming days; with multiple courts ruling that the purchase of the land by RWE was lawful, and the company has a legal right to do what they wish with the area they purchased. Environmental campaigners in the village have however refused to leave the area at the time of publishing.

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