Published on October 31, 2017

First steps towards Just Transition in Romania

, Alexandru Mustata (Bankwatch)

Environmental organisations have managed to kick off a process of thinking about just transition in the country’s most important remaining coal mining region.

The main source of coal-based energy in Romania is lignite from Gorj county, where the Oltenia Energy Complex (OEC) operates four power plants which burn lignite coming from ten local mines, accounting for almost 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs. About 13 000 people have jobs with OEC in Gorj.

But the industry is in decline. Thousands of workers in Gorj have already lost their jobs in the coal business after 42 mines and several aged units from the power plants closed down for good.

The mines which are still functioning are running out of coal, so the company plans to expand them – all of them, despite the fact that demand for coal has dwindled in recent years. Many mines are set to expand into neighbouring villages, which means that expensive expropriation procedures need to take place. The Romanian government, which owns 70% of OEC through the Ministry of Energy, backs the expansion. In 2015, it even passed an executive decree to lay the ground for the expansion of the Jilț Nord mine. This is in direct contradiction with Romania’s obligations under the Paris Agreement: state policies and funding should go towards decarbonising the energy sector.

As thousands of employees in the lignite energy and mining sector were made redundant yet again during the last years, two Romanian environmental NGOs have taken matters into their own hands and started working to introduce the concept of just transition to communities in Gorj county.

In Gorj, with the power of hindsight, campaigners know that planning for the post-coal era has to start while the coal industry is still operational.

Closing mines without putting any thinking into the future development of the region, as has happened in the neighbouring Jiu Valley, has led to the creation of hopeless zones where the population has no chance but to leave – the history of Jiu Valley serves as a strong example of how things should not be done this time around. In Gorj, with the power of hindsight, campaigners know that planning for the post-coal era has to start while the coal industry is still operational.

On our Just Transition Portal, we will tell the story of the initial efforts made by Romanian NGOs Greenpeace Romania and Bankwatch Romania to provoke a debate about just transition in the Gorj county.

We start out with a short account by Bankwatch Romania campaigner Alexandru Mustață of the first meetings the NGOs have had with local communities, and what were the results of their efforts.

We will continue over the next months with more information from the ground, presenting in detail the challenges facing the region as it approaches the post-coal era as well as introducing the actors that are likely to be involved in the transition effort and where they stand today.

Alexandru Mustata, Bankwatch Romania:

‘The first meeting we ever had in Gorj county about just transition had to be with the unions. It all started at the end of last summer in a small, hot room in the centre of Târgu Jiu (the city residence of Gorj county), with eight middle-aged men waiting for us. They were the representatives of SMEO, one of the two lignite miners’ union confederations (two hours later, we met with the second one as well).

The atmosphere was tense. As environmentalists, we were looked upon with skepticism from the start. Our work to prevent the expansion of mines in the region or to speed up the closing of others was known to the men. The first 30 minutes were used entirely to settle scores.

Who finances our activity? Why do we target the Oltenia Energy Complex and not other energy giants in Romania? Why don’t we mind our business and protect forests instead of bothering the miners? The questions fired quickly, one after the other.

It could have been expected. Certain parts of local media had been full of allegations that green NGOs are to blame for CEO’s decline. While the real reasons for the company’s troubles are corruption, inefficiencies and changes in demand for expensive electricity, it had been much easier and convenient to point fingers at the green hippies from Bucharest.

Despite the abrupt start, the tension dispelled once we clarified our objectives (we were open about wanting the coal business in general to eventually end) and we declared that there would be certainly topics where green NGOs and unions might never agree but we could leave those aside for now.

Everybody knew somebody who had been made redundant in the past and either had to leave the country or stayed but barely makes ends meet.

Focusing the conversation on just transition allowed us to bridge our differences: just transition isn’t about whether a power plant should close down in 10 or 30 years; it is about working towards the growth of these regions starting tomorrow, regardless of the future of mining in Romania. This is where we were able to find common ground: everybody in the room agreed that alternatives are necessary. Everybody knew somebody who had been made redundant in the past and either had to leave the country or stayed but barely makes ends meet.

By the end of the meeting, the unions agreed to cooperate in identifying long-term solutions.

Discussing with other leaders was slightly easier – mayors, the president of the County Council, the Prefect, party leaders from the left or the right, the University Rector or local business owners were all interested to hear our points. Of course, many are skeptical, simply because it is hard to imagine positive scenarios in a region where for the past 25 years people only witnessed steady economic decline, accompanied by mass emigration and a lower quality of life. However, even the more hesitant ones want to be involved to a certain degree in an initiative aiming to change the status quo.

We took the next step in April, when we invited all the local leaders to sit together at a roundtable event in Târgu Jiu. Representatives from unions, political parties, the Energy Complex and mayors attended this very first meeting of people interested to see change happening in their county.  Although our goal for this roundtable had been merely to check whether there was a desire from the local actors to cooperate with us in the future, we were pleasantly surprised to see the discussions evolve past just a simple agreement (the company representative was quiet throughout however).

The participants started brainstorming about solutions – for example, they thought a small-scale industrial park could be developed. They also spoke about their most immediate needs, from access to utilities for locals to the improvement of the road infrastructure.

Encouraged by the interest shown by local leaders, one month later we set out to address directly the local communities. We went to Rovinari, the town which hosts one of the country’s largest coal power plants and which is surrounded by four mines and eight villages. During a meeting at the local community center, we launched a ‘Just Transition Guide’ which outlines the concept and how it could be applied in the Romanian context.

Although few residents showed up, their contributions were essential for us to start visualising what shape the just transition can take here. People asked both for responses to the decline of mining in the region but also for addressing the problems caused by mining itself – for example the suffocation from mining dust in the villages next to Rovinari, or the contamination and destruction of groundwater sources.

The most immediate needs for these people are also solutions to address the failing economy and the growing unemployment. Cleaning up after decades of environmental degradations will create medium- and long-term jobs, as well as a setting which is attractive to investors.

The fact that everybody we met with agreed with the concept we proposed was a positive surprise. Despite the fact that we were perceived as an enemy of the main employer in the region and despite meeting some of the people for the first time, everyone agreed to collaborate with us after an hour of talks. Clearly, our biggest challenge now is to see these words turn into actions. As many of the stakeholders have little in common apart from the fact that they live in the same county, the uphill struggle we face now is to get them to work together for a long-term objective with no immediate reward.

So what’s next? After our two events, we left Gorj county with notebooks filled with ideas. Over the summer, we turned people’s ideas into a list of demands concerning just transition addressed to Romania’s decision-makers from the central level. We negotiated the list of demands with the local leaders for about a month and on October 30, we were back in Târgu Jiu for another roundtable to co-sign the document. Next on the agenda – to start pressure on politicians to take on the demands and start thinking together with us about just transition in Gorj.’

Watch this space: over the next months, we plan to update this Blog section with the latest developments in Alexandru and his colleague’s efforts to kick off a national debate about just transition in Romania.