Dispute over clearing moratorium: rwe saws away at coal commission

The company wants to clear the Hambach Forest for lignite starting in October. Environmentalists now threaten to withdraw from the coal commission.

RWE wants to clear-cut the Hambach Forest Photo: dpa

The German government’s coal commission is facing a crucial test. Energy company RWE has announced that it will begin preparations for clearing the Hambach Forest near Aachen in the fall in order to secure its lignite production. Environmental associations and residents of the Rhenish coalfield, on the other hand, are now calling for a moratorium until a decision is made on the future of coal. They speak of "provocation" and "demonstration of power" by the corporation and threaten to withdraw from the coal commission that will debate the issue on Thursday.

In a letter to the chairmen of the commission, RWE CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz had stated at the end of last week that the "clearings in Hambach Forest are absolutely necessary in 2018/19." For the "scheduled progress of the opencast mining operations" it was necessary to clear large parts of the remaining forest between October and February. Because RWE had already suspended logging in the last period due to a court case, "any time buffer has now been used up."

In addition to several localities, the forest of about 200 hectares is to disappear in order to extract lignite; according to BUND, a total of 600 hectares are threatened. RWE dredges 40 million tons of coal there per year, and a total of about 1.3 billion tons of the raw material still lie in the area. Parts of the forest are occupied by climate activists, and protest walks are held regularly. This year’s "climate camp" of coal opponents in the region comes to an end on Wednesday.

The environmental association BUND is taking legal action against the operating plan for the Hambach open pit mine approved by the authorities. It is demanding that the forest be registered as a nature reserve, which RWE is contesting with its own expert opinion. A final decision has not yet been made. Until this decision is made, even an appeal by BUND cannot prevent possible clearing.

For RWE boss Schmitz there is "no connection between the work of the commission and the operationally necessary clearings". The environmentalists see things quite differently. For BUND chairman Hubert Weiger, a member of the commission, "our cooperation in the commission is considerably endangered if clearing takes place." He said RWE’s move was a "threatening behavior" and a "provocation of the environmental associations."

Hubert Weiger, head of BUND

"Our cooperation is considerably endangered if clearing takes place".

Greenpeace, also involved in the commission, says that clearing the land would be "an attack on the commission’s basis of trust" and that RWE’s arguments are not valid. And for Antje Grothus of the "Initiative Buirer fur Buir," which represents the people of the region on the committee, the commission cannot be successful "if a single company escalates the situation unilaterally and unnecessarily on site under the eyes of the federal and state governments."

To prevent RWE from creating facts through clearing, the climate and homeland protectors are therefore calling for a "moratorium" on clearing and destruction of villages. For the opponents, RWE definitely still has a time buffer of "three to four years," according to BUND. For the Green environmental politician Oliver Krischer, who comes from the region, RWE wants to "get what it can out of lignite," putting authorities and municipalities under pressure, but "underestimating the mood in the region.

According to the climate activists, the moratorium should apply until the German government has decided on the future of coal – and not just until a possible compromise is reached in the commission. But that is currently a long way off.

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