INSIDE A COAL MINER, Ukraine aEUR" Just over 4 miles deep in a mine, the eastern Ukrainian coal miners place a drill bit on a wall of dark rock.
The tunnel is dimly lit and echoes with a series of beeps. Hydraulics hum, the spiked spherical piece spins into a blur, before it touches the wall. It fills the cavern in with thick, muting dust.
Aliona Samarska is an employee at the coal mine, which is Ukraine's "energyfront line". NPR does not use the name of the mine or its location for security reasons. Samarska claims that many miners feel safer underground, despite the dangers of mining. Officials in Ukraine say that this front line is just as important to the war effort as the artillery-lined trenches dug into the country’s surface.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned into a war of attrition, which Western military analysts fear could last months to years. While Ukraine is focusing on immediate needs such as halting Russia's slow advance to the east and finding export routes that spoil grain can be exported, there are growing concerns about the next heating season aEUR", when the tens million Ukrainians still living in the country will require electricity to heat their homes.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President, recently warned that this winter will be "the most difficult of all the years" in a video address.
According to German Galushchenko (Ukraine's energy minister), it's a heating season that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to weaponize. In the four months since their invasion, Russian forces have targeted energy infrastructure multiple times. He says, "If we're talking about long-term war it makes sense that they target this because they know we are preparing to heat the next heating season."
Pipelines carrying oil and gas have been closed or destroyed. Stopping imports from Russia, Belarus and other countries has been done. Travel is already hindered by fuel shortages.
The Ukrainian authorities have halted all oil, coal, and gas exports to Ukraine in order to ease the coming crisis. Domestic use is being allowed to all energy sources. To meet future demand, there is talk of increasing coal extraction. This is despite efforts made by prewar governments to decarbonize the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Galushchenko states that "in the long-term, we should follow this green path and the Paris agreement and everything else."
He said that for now, however, the "general strategy" is to supply Ukraine with the energy resources it requires.
Eastern Ukrainian miners, who have seen their industry decline for years, now see the shift in rhetoric as an opportunity and a renewed focus on coal.
Leaders of Western countries have pledged to abandon Russian energy and have hit Moscow with severe sanctions for its invasion in Ukraine.
Oleksander Aksonov is the chief engineer at this mine in eastern Ukraine. He stands in harsh sunlight from a headlamp at one end of a tunnel and says, "I believe that there will be more demand for coal around the world." "Due to sanctions [on Russia], oil imports are limited now, so coal will be in great demand."
He added, "Providing Ukraine power is on our shoulders right now."
Coal, a carbon-rich fossil fuel is the largest source of global climate-warming emissions. Although scientists and world leaders have promised to eliminate it, "consigning coal history to history," the global demand for coal rose even before Russia invaded.
In 2021, the surge in electricity usage following pandemic lockdowns and a limited supply of natural gas prompted a sharp rise in coal production and pollution. Then came Russia’s invasion and the European Union's ban of most Russian oil imports.
According to the International Energy Agency, Russia was the largest exporter of fossil fuels worldwide in 2021. Many of these exports were sent to Europe. Fatih Birol (head of the IEA) told the Financial Times that Russia might be trying to leverage its dependence in order to gain leverage in international negotiations as winter draws nearer.
Europe, which includes Germany, Poland and Italy, has announced plans to revive old coal plants in order to prepare for winter. Britain announced recently that it might keep some of its coal plants open, which were due to close later in the year.
The sixth-largest global coal reserve, Ukraine, is being hampered by Russian forces' frequent attacks on its rail infrastructure, the fact that they now occupy the largest Ukrainian nuclear power station aEUR" Europe, and their territorial gains in Ukraine's coal-rich east.
The Donets coal basin aEUR", the Donbas aEUR", is where ninety percent of Ukraine’s coal is found. There, slag heaps dot a pancake-flat landscape, looking like little mountains. Elevator towers reaching the sky are sometimes adorned by the Soviet star.
According to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe report, there were 227 coalmines in eastern Ukraine before the 2014 outbreak of armed conflict. Over 80% have fallen since then under Russian occupation.
Aleksandr, a retired miner aged 62 in Dobropillia (a Donetsk Oblast town), says that "mines are the most important thing" Because of Russia's recent military advancements in the region, he asks to not use his last name.
His apartment is located next to a huge mound of slag, and a mine that was temporarily shut down in April. As the air raid sirens start to sound, he doesn't hesitate.
He said, "If we stop producing coal," "these towns will perish."
Despite its historical importance and regional significance, the decline of Ukraine's coal industry is similar to that in the United States.
According to CEIC Data, a London-based data analysis firm, total Ukrainian production fell from a staggering 174 million tonnes in 1986 to a record low 24 million tons by 2020.
Profitable mines were shut down or privatized. The pay for miners has been reduced. Before the invasion, efforts were made to transition the Ukrainian coal communities from the polluting industry to preserve towns and villages.
"Not long before war, we had the idea of a just transition being authorized on the state level," Iryna Holoko, a board member of the Center for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction in Kyiv, says. "And now, the priority is on inner extraction, which is total nonsense."
Last year, Ukraine pledged to end coal burning by 2035 and shift to nuclear, renewable energy sources, natural gas, during the international climate conference held in Glasgow, Scotland.
Holovko is concerned that Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine's immediate reaction put it in doubt. New investments in Ukrainian fossil fuel resources could give them a longer lifespan.
She says that the war has exposed the dangers associated with fossil fuels which, in fact, power Putin's war machine. "The same roots are responsible for this war and the climate crisis."
The Energy Ministry of Ukraine says that it will continue to seek green energy sources. Galushchenko, Ukraine's energy minister, said that an agreement was already reached with Westinghouse Electric Company, a U.S.-based company, to build new nuclear power plants in Ukraine once the fighting ceases.
However, in the short-term, Ukrainian mines will play a greater role in providing thermal- and steel-making coke, which much of it was imported before Russia invaded.
A crowd of coal miners waits for a bus at Pokrovsk's bus station, close to the frontlines and the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk area.
Valerie Ivaniv checks her phone.
He says, "It's scary to go into the mine because you don’t know what’s going to happen to your family." I feel safer. I work underground [approximately 4,000 feet]. There is no way to communicate with the outside world via mobile phones. This is why you should be concerned about people living on the surface.
He says the work is hard. The mine bottom temperatures are usually around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
He says that the coal they mine is the best in the entire world. It is metallurgical coal aEUR coking coal, which is crucial for the production steel.
Ivaniv also said that Ukraine will need steel to rebuild.