In February and March, Za Zemiata (Friends of the Earth Bulgaria) organised several events in Stara Zagora and Galabovo, dedicated to the just energy transition and the opportunities it provides for the development of the region. The meetings were attended by stakeholders who have so far been absent from the dialogue, but whose voice is key for the future of the region – representatives of the civil society, of the small and medium enterprises, academics from the Thracian University. Despite the efforts to foster a dialogue between business, civil society, academia and the institutions, the absence of the municipality, which was invited but did not attend the meetings, was notable.

Our organisation and participation in these events, as well as in events organised by other civil society organisations, are part of our information campaign in the coal regions on the topic of just energy transition, the Territorial Just Transition Plans (TJTP) and the opportunities they provide for the overall development of the coal regions. 

The information campaign is, in fact, part of the government’s core obligations in relation to the Just Transition Mechanism, rather than an obligation of the NGO sector. 

Unfortunately, we have seen the absence of such a campaign at the national level, with the President, government and politicians instead preferring to focus on fighting for people’s votes in yet another snap general election (the fifth in two years).

The main problem in the coal regions is the lack of transparency in decision-making, the lack of information, which is a responsibility of the government. There is no way to have a successful energy transition, if people do not have information about what this transition is and how it will impact them, there is no information about the potential for positive change. All that is heard is what is in the media – the threats of the representatives of the mines, the thermal power plants and the accompanying voices of the syndicates and politicians that with the transition away from coal, people will be left without jobs and with no prospects. 

During the protest against the pollution from the Brickell TPP and the Maritza 3 TPP in September last year.

At the meetings, we noticed a very different sentiment from what is being presented in the media as ‘people’s opinions’ – in fact, the moment they get information, people become more open to change and start thinking about alternative solutions and the development of other industries. The claim that there will be no jobs and people will be left on the streets also proved to be untrue. Representatives from the Employers’ Club, the Thracian University, the Chamber of Builders, and people from the enterprises in the area all say that they have an issue with finding staff. That then is to say, there are jobs, but the workforce has been absorbed by the mines. If investment in the industrial zone were not stopped, it has the potential to develop and therefore to attract more new businesses with new job opportunities. 

When we presented the real guidelines in the draft for the Territorial Just Transition Plan for Stara Zagora and the region, and the highlights from the Just Transition Fund, we noticed that for most representatives of the civil society, the small and medium enterprises, this was new information. For two years politicians and the different governments had not found it necessary to ask the people in the region what their suggestions and preferences are. This is a huge loss of public energy, of the prospect of using people’s expertise in favour of producing better territorial plans, tailored to the specificities of the region. 

Even though there is a historical attachment to the coal industry, it is far from the only thing in the region. People are proud of their cultural and historical heritage which they want to develop, as well as with their fertile lands that have potential for development. There is a recognition that all other industries have been disrupted at the expense of mine development. 

During the protest against the pollution from the Brickell TPP and the Maritza 3 TPP in September last year.

At our meeting in Galabovo, one of the most affected places, people were unanimous that no government representatives or politicians had come to them to inform them about the territorial plans or to ask them about their opinions. The confusion of the roles of the non-governmental sector and the government on their part proved that people need to hold someone accountable for this lack of transparency. The positions of the local citizens refuted the claims of politicians and trade unions that everyone in the region wants for the mines and TPP Brikel to continue to operate – an important highlight was that everyone was against Brikel, which is poisoning people in the town, although a large part of the lives of the participants in the meetings has passed there. All examples of corruption and illegal pollution of the region by this power plant are known, as well as the cover-up of the problems by the responsible authorities. Any politician that goes to Galabovo and promises to preserve jobs in TPP Brikel should know that he is promising to continue poisoning people with air rich in various chemical compounds based on sulphur and nitrogen, that are harmful to them. 

The lack of vision and strategy at a level further than the next elections was demonstrated by politicians, as the necessary reforms in the energy sector which have the potential to unlock investments and open the market in Bulgaria, were sacrificed for the sake of party and oligarchic interests to preserve the status quo and the energy megaprojects. Even the loss of €98 million at the end of 2022 due to the failure to submit the Territorial Just Transition Plans also failed to awaken the sense of responsibility of the politicians. 

People are not prepared by the government for the upcoming changes in the energy sector, and it is the duty of politicians to present correct information for the opportunities that the energy transition gives to people and regions. If the government is not prepared to implement a smooth and just energy transition, to draw up quality territorial plans and send them to Brussels, the Bulgarian people will miss the opportunity to use EU funds for a smooth transition. What will happen is that economic coercion will close down the coal mines and power plants without compensation for those employed in the coal industry. 

It is high time Bulgarian politicians and governments start taking responsibility for the damage caused to society and the country’s economy as a consequence of their refusal to fulfil their obligations to reform the energy sector and for serving corrupt, oligarchic schemes. For this reason, the idea of both government and President to renegotiate the National Recovery and Resilience Plan with the European Commission without a guarantee of concrete measures and reforms, leading to an energy transition, is doomed to failure. Renegotiating the Plan will block and delay for months the implementation of important for the households and businesses projects such as the energy efficiency programme for multi-family residential buildings, the programme for individual RES capacities and batteries for businesses and others, which will actually reduce the bills of the households and businesses, as well as our energy dependence on foreign fossil fuel suppliers. 

The lack of vision and strategy, as well as populism, will result in the impossibility to have a smooth, just energy transition which can lead to positive changes for both mine workers and the entire coal regions, and risks an abrupt transition the price for which we will all pay. 

Read the article in Bulgarian