Turkey under renewed pressure to quit coal in wake of the Soma disaster

Soma disaster

Bankwatch highlight how excavation works for the SOCAR refinery and coal power plant have started even before all the official permits have been granted. Creative Commons: CEE Bankwatch Network, 2012

In the wake of country’s worst ever industrial disaster, killing 300 miners, the Turkish government is facing renewed calls to move away from dirty coal and towards a cleaner future.

Last Tuesday, an explosion tore through a coal in Soma, Turkey – two hundred miles from Istanbul – as more than 700 workers prepared for a shift change.

The explosion sent carbon monoxide gas into the mine’s tunnels, and a subsequent fire cut off electricity, leaving 787 miners trapped about a mile below the surface.

By the end of the first day of the rescue efforts, the official death toll was over two hundred, rising to 301 in subsequent days.

According to the country’s energy minister, Taner Yildiz, the workers died of smoke inhalation – even as rescuers attempted to pump oxygen down into the mine.

Over the following days, tensions ran high, both in Soma and across the country, with many protesters taking to street to denounce the nation’s increasing desire for coal energy, which they say has compromised mine safety and accusing the government and the mine companies of negligence.

While the government has launched an inquiry into the incident, and arrests have been made – including the general manager of the mine – the company that owns the mine, Soma Holding has insisted it complied with safety regulations and questions the effectiveness of the regulations themselves.

Whoever it to blame for this incident, and whatever the cause of last week’s explosion, mining for coal in any country is a dangerous undertaking and the latest incident has led to renewed calls for Turkey to get itself off the hook of dirty fossil fuels.

The dirty story of coal

Coal is Turkey’s most exploited indigenous source of energy – with between 50 and 86 new power planets planned in the coming years – and there have been a least 13 ‘major’ accidents in the country’s mining industry since 1983 – most due to methane explosions.

Last year, there was a reported 13 thousand miners who suffered from workplace accidents, and prior to last week’s explosion, the previous largest incident – a gas explosion in 1992 – took 263 lives.

Turkey is said to have lost some 1,000 miners in accidents between 2002 and 2012.

But it is not only an issue in Turkey. The most used, and still most rapidly growing fuel, coal is one of the world’s most deadly substances.

In the US more than 100,000 people have been killed in the last century, and in China over 6,000 fatalities were witnessed in 2004 alone.

And if you look at the wider health implications of coal, these numbers jump even more significantly. More than 75,000 American miners have died of pneumoconiosis since 1968, with incidences rising as people work longer hours in smaller pits.

Burning coal also has huge health implications, with figures showing 18,2000 Europeans die every year from the air pollution from coal power. Another 24,000 deaths are said to occur in the US.

And all this is before we even take into account the implications of coal in terms of climate change.

This latest disaster is yet another reason why countries like Turkey can no longer rely on this dirty energy source, particularly when it has huge potential for generating power from cleaner sources, and green groups in the country have renewed their call for the government to begin this transition.

Whether through the mine pits or through climate change, death by coal is not fate, they argue, and Turkey should not even be considering coal a source of energy, when there are climate-friendly and people-friendly alternatives, and energy efficiency measures abundantly available.

But while globally we are witnessing a shift away from coal – last year saw major banks including the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as governments including the US, UK and Scandinavian countries halt lending to this dirty energy source – in Turkey both the government and investors are still looking to expand the industry.

Calls for Turkey to quit dirty energy

Ignoring the country’s significant solar and wind potential – Turkey’s solar potential is second only to Spain – the government envisages a massive expansion of coal capacity with over 37,000 MW of new installations proposed.

If all such potential was brought online, the country would rank first among OECD countries in investing in new coal and fourth globally, behind only China, India and Russia.

This goes against the country’s G20 commitment for the “phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” and in a recent report Bankwatch warned that the construction of these new plants is taking place without properly following legal requirements.

In the wake of last week’s events, it is perhaps understandable NGOs are concern that future plants could be just as polluting and just as dangerous as projects currently operating.

The report found that to date, no cumulative impact assessment has been conducted for 13 new plants planned for the Western Black Sea Coast region, that alternative energy forms have yet to be discussed and that the public consultation process on plants are deficient.

In a similar example, NGOs argue that the SOCAR Refinery project and its ‘secret coal plant’ have bi-passed environmental and social impact assessments and put a potential geothermal energy project at risk.

Bankwatch has also highlighted the recently adopted Electricity Market Law that gives exemption to any facility in which the state is an owner or participants from national environment legislation to the end of 2018.

With such support for new coal power, NGOs calling for an end to coal power in the country will face a battle against plans for rapid expansion.

Commentators have expressed hope that the Soma incident could result in some changes in regulation, but with Prime Minsiter’s Erdogan’s public comment that “this is what happens in coalmining” they are concerned the government may not be ready to say goodbye to this dangerous and dirty energy source.

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