(Gökçe Şencan / Independent Turkey – April 10, 2017)

Photo: Kangal coal power plant in Sivas / Source : Bianet

The rise of the coal industry tells the story of the Justice and Development Party’s record in power.

Video: Çatalağzı / Zonguldak in Black Sea region has been devastated by coal power plants

In its early years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government prioritized hydroelectric dam projects as a solution to the country’s lack of oil and gas. The Energy Market Regulator (Enerji Piyasası Düzenleme Kurumu) was founded under the remit of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources in 2001, and, in line with the new government’s stringently neoliberal agenda, began to pursue an aggressive privatization strategy; providing subsidies and incentives to companies investing in energy projects.

The main beneficiaries of this process were predominantly a group of new, rapidly growing conglomerates such as Çalık, Kolin, Soma, and Cengiz, which developed in close contact with the state under the AKP.

After an initial surge in investment, it became apparent that the expansion of hydroelectric power production could not (by itself) solve the economy’s energy problem, with 71% of Turkey hydroelectric dams having less than a 25 MW capacity.

With the government’s reputation increasingly tied to its ability to sustain rapid economic growth, cheap, domestic coal became the quick-fix solution to rising energy costs. And it was the energy companies that had sprung up under the AKP that benefitted most by expanding their operations and switching from hydroelectric dams to mining, thermal coal plants, or both.

The coal industry has thus developed in tandem with the government and remains highly dependent on links to energy minister and close Erdoğan ally, Berat Albayrak. In turn, the AKP relies on a relentless supply of coal to fuel a faltering economy.

In a sign of this growing relationship, parliament passed a bill in August approving more state subsidies for the industry – estimated to be to as much as $2 billion a year – whilst removing almost all remaining regulation.

But while coal is cheap, it is by no means cost-free. A 2015 investigation by The Guardian highlighted the devastating toll coal plants take on local communities, with whole towns crippled by lung cancer and chronic bronchitis.

Conditions for workers can be even worse Soma will be forever remembered for the mining disaster in 2014 that killed 301 people after labour rights and safety standards were relaxed by the government in an effort to increase the speed of production. Hundreds of smaller incidents continue to happen each year.

The damage does not stop there. Depending on the coal type, the ash produced can contain anywhere from moderate to alarmingly high concentrations of toxic elements like mercury, arsenic, and lead, which are known to be the cause of various medical conditions from birth defects to cancer.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, 24.2 million tonnes of such waste is produced from the country’s 66 coal plants each year, 48.5% of which is dumped in ash disposal sites, where these elements can leak into groundwater basins.

The impact on agriculture can be devastating. Flue gas and fly ash from coal plants have been shown to be responsible for the degradation of air and soil quality in rural areas surrounding Konya, Adana, and Çanakkale, which are home to some of the country’s most fertile lands and whose economies are highly dependent on agricultural production.

This problem is exacerbated by the coal industry’s insatiable need for expansion.  According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s 2015 Soil Atlas report, between 2011 and 2015, nearly 7,900 hectares of arable land were permitted to be used for mining purposes.

Much of this land was seized under the “urgent expropriation law”. Although the law existed long before the AKP came to power, it has been used excessively by the party to fast-track energy and development projects.

Originally intended to be used in states of emergency, the affected landowners, mostly small farmers, are only entitled to relatively small amounts of compensation. This caught national attention in 2014 when the legislation was used in the village of Yırca to cut down 6,000 olive trees in order to construct a coal plant owned by the Kolin Group; depriving a community of its livelihood in favour of a conglomerate known for its close relations with the government.

In a more recent example, an urgent expropriation decision was used to secure 5.5 hectares of agricultural land on the Tekirdağ-İstanbul border for the construction of a coal plant, a move that sparked protests by locals and environmental organizations.

The rise of the modern coal industry is a parable of Turkey under the AKP. Ambitious early reforms have given way to increasingly grim, short-term solutions. Decisions, which are ostensibly taken in the national interest, are enacted from above, with little respect for their impact on local communities. And a new elite enrich themselves, while those who suffer the consequences have fewer and fewer chances to object.