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In eastern Ukraine's coal fields, Russia's invasion sparks hopes of a comeback

An employee at a coal mine in eastern Ukraine travels deep into the mine.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
An employee at a coal mine in eastern Ukraine travels deep into the mine.

INSIDE A COAL MINE, Ukraine A little more than 4 miles into a mine, in the newfound relative comfort of being over 1,000 feet underground, eastern Ukrainian coal miners position a drill bit on a dark rock wall.

A series of beeps echoes in the dimly lit tunnel, hydraulics hum and the spiked spherical bit spins into a blur before it brushes the wall, filling the cavern with a cloud of thick, muting dust.

This is Ukraine's "energy front line," says Aliona Samarska, an employee of the privately owned coal mine. NPR is not using the mine's name or location for security reasons. Despite mining's own familiar dangers, Samarska says many miners say they feel safer underground. And this front line could be just as critical to the war effort, Ukrainian officials say, as the artillery-lined trenches being dug into the country's surface.

Workers wait to get off an elevator at a coal mine in eastern Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Workers wait to get off an elevator at a coal mine in eastern Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has become a brutal war of attrition that Western military analysts warn could last for months or years. While Ukraine focuses on immediate needs like stalling Russia's slow advance in the east and finding export routes for spoiling grain, there are also growing concerns about the coming winter — the next heating season — when the tens of millions of Ukrainians who are still in the country will need electricity to warm their homes.

"This will indeed be the most difficult winter of all the years of independence," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently warned in a video address.

It's a heating season Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking to weaponize, says German Galushchenko, Ukraine's energy minister. He says Russian forces have repeatedly targeted energy infrastructure in the more than four months since they launched a full-scale invasion. "If we are talking about the long-term war, it makes sense they should target this because they know that we are preparing for the next heating season," he says.

A closed coal mine in eastern Ukraine sports a Soviet star painted in Ukrainian colors. Many unprofitable mines have been shuttered or privatized.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A closed coal mine in eastern Ukraine sports a Soviet star painted in Ukrainian colors. Many unprofitable mines have been shuttered or privatized.

Oil and gas pipelines have been shut off or destroyed. Imports from Russia and Belarus have been stopped. Fuel shortages in the country are already stymieing travel.

To alleviate the coming crunch, Ukrainian authorities have put a pause on all oil, coal and gas exports from the country. Energy sources are being reserved for domestic use. And there are talks of expanding coal extraction, where possible, to meet the coming demand. That's despite prewar efforts to decarbonize the country's economy to reduce harmful gas emissions that cause climate change.

"In the long-term of course we should follow this green course and the Paris agreement and all of this," Galushchenko says.

But right now, he says, "our general strategy is to provide Ukraine with the necessary energy resources it needs."

Workers having just gotten off the elevator head deeper into the mine to start their shifts.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Workers having just gotten off the elevator head deeper into the mine to start their shifts.

Miners in eastern Ukraine, who have long watched their industry erode, see the shift in rhetoric and renewed focus on coal as an opportunity.

Leading Western economies have vowed to move away from Russian energy and are hitting Moscow with hefty sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

"I believe that the demand for coal in the whole world will increase," says Oleksander Aksonov, the lead engineer of this mine in eastern Ukraine, as he stands in the harsh light of a headlamp at the end of a tunnel. "Due to the sanctions [on Russia], the import of oil is limited now so coal will be in high demand."

He adds, "Providing Ukraine with power is on our shoulders now."

Global coal production is on the rise

The burning of coal, a carbon-rich fossil fuel, is the single largest source of climate-warming emissions in the world. Scientists and world leaders have pledged to phase it out, "consigning coal to history," but even before Russia's invasion, the global demand for coal was rising.

Spurred by surging electricity use following pandemic lockdowns and limited supplies of natural gas, coal production and pollution jumped sharply in 2021. Then came Russia's invasion and the European Union's ban on most Russian oil imports.

An operator of the mine railway that carries people in and out of the depths of the mine waits as workers disembark.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
An operator of the mine railway that carries people in and out of the depths of the mine waits as workers disembark.

Russia was the world's largest exporter of fossil fuels in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency. Many of those exports went to Europe. And there are concerns Russia may be looking to use that dependence to gain "leverage" in international talks as winter draws nearer, Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA, told the Financial Times in June.

To brace themselves for the winter ahead, European countries, including Germany, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands, have announced plans to resurrect old coal plants. Britain recently announced it may keep some coal plants, slated for closure later this year, open longer.

In Ukraine, which has the sixth-largest coal reserves in the world, the situation is complicated by Russian forces' repeated attacks on its rail infrastructure; the fact that they occupy a Ukrainian nuclear power plant — Europe's largest; and their territorial gains in the country's coal-rich east.

Ninety percent of Ukraine's coal is believed to be in the Donets coal basin — the Donbas — where slag heaps dot the pancake-flat landscape like little mountains and elevator towers, reaching skyward, are still sometimes adorned with the Soviet star.

A slag heap rises behind residential buildings in Dobropillia, a town in the Donbas. Ninety percent of the country's coal is believed to be in the Donets coal basin in the Donbas region.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A slag heap rises behind residential buildings in Dobropillia, a town in the Donbas. Ninety percent of the country's coal is believed to be in the Donets coal basin in the Donbas region.

Prior to the outbreak of armed fighting in 2014, there were 227 coal mines in eastern Ukraine, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization. More than 80% of them have since fallen under Russian occupation.

"Mines are the most important thing here," says Aleksandr, a 62-year-old retired miner in Dobropillia, a town in the Donetsk Oblast. He asks not to use his last name because of Russia's recent military advances in the area.

His apartment building sits next to a massive mound of slag and a mine where operations briefly stopped in April. He doesn't flinch as an air raid siren starts to blare.

"If we stop producing coal," he says, "these towns will die."

"The climate crisis and this war have the same roots"

Despite its history and regional importance, Ukraine's coal industry has been on a similar decline to coal mining in the United States.

Total Ukrainian production dropped from a 174 million tons in 1986 to a record low of 24 million tons in 2020, according to the London-based data analysis firm CEIC Data.

Unprofitable mines have been shuttered or privatized. Pay for miners has been cut. Efforts were underway before the most recent invasion to help transition Ukrainian coal communities away from the heavy polluting industry and to keep towns alive.

"Not long before the war we had the concept of a just transition being approved on the state level," says Iryna Holovko, a board member at the Center for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction, a Kyiv-based nonprofit. "And now the priority is on internal extraction, which is absolute nonsense."

A chapel for workers in the mine's compound in eastern Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A chapel for workers in the mine's compound in eastern Ukraine.

During last year's international climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Ukraine promised to stop burning coal by the year 2035, shifting instead to nuclear, renewable energy sources and natural gas.

Holovko is worried that Russia's invasion and Ukraine's immediate response put that in doubt, and that new investments in Ukrainian fossil fuel resources will give them a longer life.

"The war has shown the risks connected with fossil fuels, which are actually powering Putin's war machine," she says. "The climate crisis and this war have the same roots."

Ukraine's Energy Ministry says it will continue to pursue green energy sources. Galushchenko, the energy minister, says an agreement has already been made with the U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Company to build new nuclear plants in Ukraine as soon as the fighting stops.

A mine employee folds his hands as he sits in the mine railway awaiting his stop. For miners in eastern Ukraine, who have long watched their industry erode, the shift in rhetoric and renewed focus on coal is being seen as an opportunity.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A mine employee folds his hands as he sits in the mine railway awaiting his stop. For miners in eastern Ukraine, who have long watched their industry erode, the shift in rhetoric and renewed focus on coal is being seen as an opportunity.

In the immediate-term though, Ukrainian mines are expected to play an increased role in providing thermal and steel-making coal, much of which was imported prior to Russia's invasion.

At a bus station in Pokrovsk, near the front lines and the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk region, a crowd of coal miners smoke cigarettes and wait for a bus to pick them up for a 12-hour shift.

Valerie Ivaniv checks his phone.

"It's really scary to go to the mine because you don't know what's going to happen with your family," he says. "I feel safer. I work [almost 4,000 feet] underground. But there's no mobile communication. That's why you worry for people on the surface."

The work is grueling, he says. Temperatures at the bottom of the mine are often around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the coal they extract, he says, "is the best in the world." It's metallurgical coal — coking coal, critical for the production of steel.

And steel will be needed in Ukraine, Ivaniv says, to rebuild.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Signs of workers rise above the grounds of a coal mine in eastern Ukraine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Signs of workers rise above the grounds of a coal mine in eastern Ukraine.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Hanna Palamarenko