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RWE lignite mining blocked amid doubts on 2038 German exit date

Tens of thousands protest open pit mining near Aachen while Bavarian state premier demands coal exit by 2030

Thousands of activists occupied RWE’s Garzweiler open pit lignite mining operations in the Rhineland over the weekend as first conservative political heavyweights joined in criticism that a planned 2038 date for a German coal exit is too late.

On Friday, some 40,000 striking school students from the Fridays for Future movement from 15 different countries marched on a climate strike in Aachen, close to the Garzweiler operations, according to organisers.

Among the Aachen protesters was also YouTuber Rezo, who had unsettled Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) with his video “The destruction of the CDU” that was clicked 15 million times and is seen as having contributed to a bitter electoral defeat of the CDU in the European elections.

Aachen-resident Rezo in great part of the video was attacking the government’s failures in climate policy.

Protests became more violent on Saturday when several thousand activists from the more radical ‘Ende Gelände’ (‘time is up for open pit’) movement broke through police lines and occupied part of the large Garzweiler mine. Others blocked nearby rail tracks that usually serve the route to one of Europe’s biggest open-pit lignite mines.

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The protesters Saturday got support from an unexpected side, the Bavarian state premier Markus Söder from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s sister party.

Söder in an interview to the Münchner Merkur newspaper said in order to reach Germany’s 2030 climate targets, the coal exit would need to be accelerated massively.

“In the end, we should probably exit by the year 2030,” Söder said.

RWE in a statement insisted on the 2038 date that had been suggested by the so-called coal-exit commission earlier this year, although the utility on earlier occasions had called 2038 too early.

"There is a plan on the table for phasing-out coal and there is no reason to endanger people and carry out illegal actions," said Frank Weigand, chief executive of RWE Power. He also spoke out against the protests blocking the company’s open pit mining.

"We naturally respect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protests such as Fridays for Future. But it is not acceptable to deliberately break the law under the guise of climate protection. Blocking tracks and entering opencast mines is dangerous and against the law."

Fridays for Future activists had already disrupted RWE's annual meeting earlier this year.

RWE said that despite the disruptions, the operation of its fossil power plants and electricity generation were never at risk, although the company has suffered an economic loss.

The utility's shares plunged 2.73% in early morning electronic trading in Frankfurt Monday to €22.11 per share, while the DAX index of Germany's most traded stocks was only down 0.45%.

Germany’s wind power federation BWE after Söder’s declarations demanded to re-negotiate the coal exit.

“Markus Söder is right. The federal government must make its decision on the coal exit more concrete. An earlier exits secures European climate protection targets,” BWE president Hermann Albers said.

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But Albers also pointed out that for a faster coal exit, and for achieving Germany’s target of 65% renewables in the electricity mix by 2030, the renewable energy expansion must speed up.

He added that Bavaria in particular was actually blocking that through its damaging 10H distance rule for onshore wind that has near paralysed new wind developments in the state, Germany’s largest by territory.

Albers also said that some 11GW in onshore wind projects are currently waiting for a permit across the country.

Climate issues feature among Germans’ top electoral concerns, while the opposition Green Party in recent opinion polls is on par or ahead of the CDU/CSU for the first time.

Activists left the Garzweiler lignite mine on Sunday.

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