Most of Spain’s coal mines will be permanently shut down by the end of the year, thanks to the Socialist-led coalition government settling on a 250 million euro agreement with the trade unions. This money will be invested in the mining regions over the next decade for job creation, along with generous severance, early-retirement for miners over 48, and re-education packages for miners to gain “green” jobs. The mining deal covers Spain’s 10 privately owned pits, and will put over 1,000 workers out of a job. Roughly 600 workers in Spain’s northern mining regions (Asturias, Aragón, and Castilla y León) will be able to benefit from social aid, and approximately 60% of miners may opt for early retirement.
Negotiations will begin soon for the few hundred miners still working in publicly-owned mines. Similar transition plans will be formulated for them.
Spanish trade unions hailed the deal as a model compromise. Environment minister Teresa Ribera said, “With this agreement, we have solved the first urgent task we had on the table when we came to government. Our aim has been to leave no one behind.”
Montserrat Mir of the Spanish branch of the European Trades Union Congress, said the fair transition model could be applied internationally: “Spain can export this deal as an example of good practice,” she told the Guardian. “We have shown that it’s possible to follow the Paris [climate] agreement without damage. We don’t need to choose between a job and protecting the environment. It is possible to have both.”
The closing of the mines is part of Spain’s ambitious carbon-reduction targets. Currently, coal accounts for 36% of the world’s energy, and roughly 46% of global carbon dioxide emissions. 23,000 early deaths in the EU were reportedly due to coal plant pollution in 2016. Today, coal only provides 2.3% of Spain’s energy needs. Many of Spain’s mines were not economically viable, and only survived thanks to 2 billion Euro in economic aid from the European Commission to keep them afloat temporarily. Coal reached its heyday in Spain in the 1960s, when over 10,000 people were employed in the field, but declined over time thanks to cheap imports and the industry’s environmental, health, and climate costs.
The government’s new carbon-reduction policies are part of a massive reversal of the energy policies of the previous right-wing government, including the abolition of the “sunshine tax”, and the long-anticipated national climate plan to be launched this November. Under the sunshine tax, all new and existing solar systems larger than 10kW had to pay a generation charge, even when the electricity produced was consumed on site. Rooftop installations also faced prohibitive red tape. Scrapping the tax removed these barriers, and the new decree simplified technical and administrative requirements for installing small-scale renewable projects.
Spanish company Ingelia has also developed a process to produce biocarbon fuel made from sewage which burns like coal, but is in fact carbon neutral, with significantly reduced emissions of nitrogen, sulfur, and chloride. The technology also has applications to create materials like biopolymers, such as producing plastics ,or to create peat substitute for soil enrichment. By 2022, they expect to replace 220,000 tons of coal, and avoid half a million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, a boost to the EU’s plans to cut emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Also on the table is tackling coal-fired power generation plants, which would prompt a reconsideration for their upgrades – upgrades needed to bring them into compliance with stricter EU pollution emissions standards that come into play in 2021. Currently, there are utility plans to upgrade three power plants, Litoral, As Pontes, and units 3 and 4 at Alcudia. Upgrades have been completed at Litoral, but only just begun at As Pontes. These plans will cost an estimated 400 million Euro, with 16 million Euro spent to date, a cost that may ultimately not be worth the pain if Spain succeeds in phasing out coal entirely.