Still Burning is a network working against the global hard coal infrastructure.

5.5 “Our coal, our energy” – Turkey’s shift to coal

by | 30 Mar, 2021 | Sites of Devastation

With the hashtag #BiziKömürümüzBizimEnerjimiz (#ourcoalourenergy), the Turkish state has massively pushed (and subsidised) coal-powered electricity generation. 

Turkey is a net energy importer (importing three quarters of its energy), and its budget deficit and political tensions with Russia, on which it depends for gas, help explain the government’s ‘coal rush’ (Milli Enerji). A third of Turkey’s primary energy is generated by burning coal, and coal is responsible for a third of the country’s annual GHG emissions as well as leading to thousands of deaths, especially through local air pollution. In 2012, emissions of air pollutants from nineteen large hard coal and lignite fired power plants were estimated to have caused approximately 2,876 premature deaths – in addition to 3,823 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,311 hospital admissions, and 637,643 lost working days each year. These numbers are presumably much higher today, as many new coal power stations have been constructed in recent years. The economic cost of the health impacts from coal combustion in Turkey are estimated at €2.9 billion up to €3.6 billion per year. Despite the populist and nationalist rhetoric within which coal is embedded, hard coal imports into Turkey have risen much faster than domestic coal extraction. While domestic production is dominated by lignite extraction, lignite made up just under 15 percent of total electricity production in 2019, while hard coal contributed over 22 percent. Most of this coal is imported.

Turkey’s main hard coal deposits (and only mining sites) are located in the Zonguldak basin, between Ereğli and Amasra on the Black Sea coast in the North West of Turkey. Its very complex geological structure does not allow for mechanised coal production – hence, coal production is labour intensive, dangerous, and subsidised. 

“Between 2000 and 2018, there were more than 21,000 workplace accidents in coal mines in Turkey, resulting in 534 deaths and 11,000 injuries. Some 3,000 workers have been left disabled due to their injuries, often caused by collapsing tunnels”. The hard coal reserves in the Zonguldak basin are estimated at some 1.5 billion tonnes, 48 percent of which is proved reserve.

Yet, annual extraction is minor in comparison to coal imports, which have grown steadily over the last forty years and quadrupled since 1999 alone. 

Growing at an average annual rate of almost ten percent, hard coal imports stood at 38.3 million tonnes in 2019 – mostly used for power generation, some steel production, industrial use, and domestic heating purposes. Half of this coal came from Colombia (39 percent), one third from Russia (36.6 percent), and smaller amounts from the USA (13.1 percent), Australia (three percent), and South Africa (six percent). Imports are expected to increase further in the future. About half of Turkey’s approximately 40 power stations (with a total capacity of about 19 gigawatt) burn hard coal. A number of new power plants have been commissioned in the past few years, with many other projects cancelled or delayed. Turkey now has more coal power in pre-construction development than India, second only to China!

Many of these are financed by international investors. The USD$1.7 billion Emba Hunutlu Thermal Power Plant that is being built on the Southern coast of Turkey is said to be the biggest Chinese direct investment project in Turkey. China’s Shanghai Electric Power holds 78.21 percent of project shares. The project has triggered very strong local and national opposition due to its pollution, health, environmental, and climate impacts. In addition, it is being constructed on a biodiversity conservation area. The area is home to the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), and protected under the 1979 Bern Convention on Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.

Local and nation-wide community groups and campaigns are fighting against both hard and lignite coal across the country, and despite serious repression against ecological activists, many are taking action against coal, including direct action. In 2016, for instance, 11 Greenpeace activists climbed a 280m high power plant chimney and unrolled a banner reading “grey and dirty”, to respond to President Erdoğan’s claim to be “greener than Greenpeace”. In 2014, community activists stopped energy firm Kolin from building a new 510-megawatt (MW) coalfired power plant at the olive grove in Yırca (Manisa Province). They were beaten and handcuffed by private security when blocking bulldozers in the middle of the night, and the company cut down 6,000 olive trees in its attempt to build the plant. In the end, however, local community campaigners – led by women – won the court battle!

“Women are the central heroes of this fight”, a campaigner from Yenice (Çanakkale Province) explains, and in Yırca, “We marched first, then the men followed”. Wherever a coal project is planned in Turkey, there is local resistance, and this resistance has already been scaring away investors. In 2019, after being postponed seven times since 2017, the privatisation tender of the Eskişehir Alpu lignite coal mine and plant project got cancelled because no investors were interested. And that was despite government purchase guarantees and biased environmental impact assessment processes! Turkey is thus becoming a major player in the coal world, despite local opposition, lower gas prices, and the risk of stranded assets, and the Colombia-Turkish coal trade illustrates the slow trend towards South-South coal trading relationships.

Importantly, however, some of this coal-powered electricity is also imported into the EU – in 2019, Turkey exported 2.67 Terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity to Greece. As the EMBER think tank has shown: ‘Offshore carbon havens’ like Turkey are building coal plants just outside of the EU borders to meet EU power demand while avoiding the EU ETS carbon tax. Russian electricity exports to Finland (7.58 TWhs in 2019), and Ukraine electricity exports to Hungary (3.82 TWhs in 2019) are other examples of this trend.

The history of coal in Turkey is entangled in geopolitical struggles, primarily against the expanding Russian Empire. To defend the Ottoman Empire against the Russians, and to compete with their coal-fired, steam-powered fleet, Sultan Abdulmejid I made the discovery of domestic coalfields a national priority. 

In the hope of finding local coal sources in Turkey, sailors were given small pieces of coal and told to search for similar bits in their hometowns, with the promise of gold as a reward. In 1829, Uzun Mehmet (Tall Mehmet), a sailor from Kestaneci near Ereğli, or a local villager (historical accounts vary), found a piece of coal that was brought to Istanbul and triggered coal mining in the area. He received a big sum of gold but was murdered shortly after and did not get to enjoy his pension. 

Stories like these fed into the nationalist discourse around coal, which we continue to see today. 

The Ereğli Coal Mine that was developed after Uzun Mehmet’s discovery, relied on skilled foreign workers and manual labour. But production was too low to feed the demand for coal by the Ottoman Army. British engineers (the Barclay Brothers and eight mining supervisors) were ‘invited’ to manage the mine and increase production. 

With the outbreak of the Crimean war, the British took control of the coalfields to ensure coal supply for the Royal Navy. Mining became more mechanised and Turkish miners were trained. The Barclay Brothers also built a number of train lines to transport coal. When the war ended, the British Coal Company stayed in charge of the business and held a monopoly position in mining in Turkey until 1865. An autonomous British bank was founded to support the mining company.

Coal mining continued to expand, attracting workers from far away (despite the dangerous working conditions), and the Ottoman Imperial Navy went on to become the third largest navy in the world. 

Coal mining was thus of utmost importance to the Ottoman empire, and the new ministry in charge of the coalfield was quick to regulate mining, setting a working age for the mine of between 13 and 50, and forced men – only men and boys were allowed to work in mining – from a number of towns in Ereğli to work in the mines. 

In World War I, control over the basin was given to Germany, and taken by the French after the war. While the French army left the region in 1921, the French Ereğli Coal Company remained in control of the management of the basin until 1937. Mining continued to be ‘high politics’ for the new Turkish state, and the very first labour act of the new Turkish parliament in 1921 regulated the rights of mine workers in the coal basin. Mining in Turkey became a transnational business – with Turkish, French, and Italian companies – until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, nationalised the mining sector. 

Ever since, and despite more recent waves of privatisation, coal mining has been portrayed as a ‘national project’, and integral to ‘modern Turkey’ and modern Turkish identity.

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