* Spain gets EU clearance to support coal to end-2014
* Poland says may try to get similar deal
(Adds detail, quotes)
By Pete Harrison and Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, Sept 29 Spain gained approval from
Europe's competition watchdog on Wednesday to support
unprofitable coal mining until 2015, which critics said would
prop up an ailing sector to the detriment of the environment.
The decision coincides with a wave of strikes by Spanish
coal miners demanding unpaid wages.
Under a decree passed by the Spanish government, 10 power
generators will have to burn some domestic coal instead of
"I am satisfied that the planned compensation will not
exceed what is necessary to allow electricity generators to
fulfil their public service obligation ... and will not unduly
delay the painful but necessary closure of loss-making mines,"
said European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia.
But the country's own competition watchdog, the National
Competition Commission, has already said the decree would
distort investment signals by leaving companies uncertain about
how much power will come from coal in the future.
The Spanish government has defended the plan, citing EU laws
that allow member countries to prioritise domestic energy
sources for generating up to 15 percent of national power
supplies to ensure energy security.
The Commission said the volumes of electricity involved in
the Spanish decree would not exceed 23.4 terawatt hours per year
in 2011-2014 -- around 9 percent of national consumption and
well below the 15 percent limit.
Environmentalists said, however, that Spain has been
generating so much power that it has been able to export some to
neighbouring countries for the past six years.
By supporting highly polluting coal when it is no longer
economical, Spain is undermining the EU's pledge to shift to
cleaner, low-carbon energy sources such as gas and renewables,
The Spanish decree has nothing to do with energy security
and is unlawful, said activist lawyers group ClientEarth, which
complained to the Commission in July.
"The Spanish government should not be allowed to undermine
the progressive environmental objectives set by the EU, and the
Commission should not set this troubling precedent," said Marta
Ballesteros, of ClientEarth.
Like many countries, Spain gives government aid to domestic
coal mining, which struggles to compete with cheaper and
higher-quality imports. But having missed the opportunity to
remove support during the past economic boom, the government
would struggle to remove it during the current bust.
Poland was encouraged by Spain's success and said it would
try to secure a similar deal for its own coal sector.
Spanish miners began their second 48-hour strike in a week
on Wednesday, burning tyres on the road in the northern region
of Asturias. Those demonstrations come amid a wave of protests
across Europe. [ID:nLDE68S0LF]
The labour unrest has heaped pressure on a government
struggling with unemployment at around 20 percent. It has also
made life difficult for Almunia, Spain's man in the European
Commission and the official in charge of ensuring a level
playing field for European industry.
Only two of the 27 commissioners opposed the plan at a
meeting on Wednesday: Danish climate commissioner Connie
Hedegaard and Slovenian environment commissioner Janez Potocnik,
Commission sources said.
"At least 10 commission departments said they didn't like
the plan but would stick together with Almunia for reasons of
solidarity," said one source. "Commission lawyers are expecting
to have to defend this in the courts."
(Writing by Pete Harrison, additional reporting by Martin
Roberts in Madrid, editing by Jane Baird)