In Poland, where coal is king, homeowners queue for days to buy fuel

WARSAW/Bogdanka (Reuters) – In Poland’s sweltering late summer, dozens of cars and trucks queued at the Lublinski Vigil Bogdanka coal mine, where families fearing the lack of winter wait for days and nights to queue up to stockpile heating fuel. Reminiscent of the communist era.

Artur, 57, a retiree from Sweden, climbed about 30 km from the mine in eastern Poland on Tuesday hoping to buy several tons of coal for himself and his family.

“The toilets were set up today, but there’s no running water,” he said after three nights sleeping in his tiny red hatchback in a creeping line of trucks, tractors, trailers and private cars.

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“This is beyond imagination, people sleep in their cars. I remember the communist times but it never occurred to me that we could go back to something worse.”

Artur’s home is one of 3.8 million in Poland who rely on coal for heating and are now facing shortages and price hikes, after Poland and the European Union imposed a ban on Russian coal following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Poland banned the purchases with immediate effect in April, while the bloc ordered them to be phased out by August.

While Poland produces more than 50 million tons from its mines each year, imported coal, mostly from Russia, is a household staple due to competitive prices and the fact that Russian coal is sold in blocks more suitable for domestic use.

Growing demand has prompted Bogdanka and other state-controlled mines to ration sales or offer fuel to individual buyers via online platforms, in limited quantities. Artur, who did not want to give his full name, said he collected the papers from his extended family in the hope of getting all their fuel allowances at once.

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Dorota Choma, a spokeswoman for the Bogdanka mine, told Reuters that the mine plans to sell fuel to about 250 families on Friday and will continue sales at the weekend to reduce waiting times.

Choma said the restrictions are in place to prevent hoarding and profit, or even the sale of waiting-list sites.

Like all Polish coal mines, Bogdanka usually sells most of the coal it produces to power plants. Last year, it sold less than 1% of its production to individual customers, so it lacks the logistics of selling fuel directly to retail buyers.

Lukasz Hobach, head of the Polish Coal Chamber of Commerce, said the decline in Russian imports began in January when Moscow began using railways for military transport.

“But the main reason for the shortage is the ban, which came into effect immediately. Turning the market upside down,” he told Reuters.

A spokesman for Weglokoks, a state-owned coal trader tasked by the government with increasing imports from other countries, declined to comment, while the Climate Ministry could not be reached for comment. Government officials have repeatedly said Poland will have enough fuel to meet demand.

In recent years, Poland has been a vocal critic of the European Union’s climate policy and a staunch advocate of coal, which generates up to 80% of its electricity. But coal production has steadily declined as the cost of mining has increased at deeper levels.

Coal consumption has mostly stabilized, which has led to a gradual rise in imports. In 2021, Poland imported 12 million tons of coal, of which 8 million tons came from Russia and are used by homes and small heating plants.

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In July, Poland ordered two state-controlled companies to import several million tons of fuel from other sources including Indonesia, Colombia and Africa, and provided subsidies to homeowners facing double or triple coal prices from last winter.

“Up to 60% of those who use coal for heating may be affected by energy poverty,” Horbach said.

Back in Bogdanka, Peter Maciegoski, 61, a local farmer who joined the waiting list on Tuesday, said he was prepared for the long wait.

“My tractor is left in line,” he said, “and I’m going home to get some sleep.”

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(Covering) By Marek Strzelecki and Koba Stezeki, Editing by Russell

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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