The Oil Crisis and the Revival of Lignite Mining

The revival of lignite emerged as a serious problem for nature conservation following the oil price shock of 1973 (when OPEC dramatically raised the price of crude) and other price hikes for raw materials that the GDR had to import. By 1974, the price of crude had increased by a factor of five. This trend continued from 1975 to 1980. The price per barrel rose from $1.80 in 1970 to $17.26 in 1979. That price then doubled within a year and reached $32–34 per barrel in 1980 (Wenzel 1998, 67, 74; Roesler 2012, 78).

The strategy of the SED leadership was to replace oil with lignite. Considerable investments were made in retrofitting measures, with the result that funds were not available for repair and modernization needed elsewhere. Ambitious consumption-oriented programs, such as the housing program, contributed to lower levels of investment in industry and accelerated the process of wear and deterioration in manufacturing facilities. This had the “side-effect” of reducing the role of environmental protection in the one- and five-year plans (Paucke 1994). By 1990, maintenance costs in the manufacturing sector had reached DM 49 billion, the same level as investments. Seventeen percent of total potential output went toward maintenance and repair (Behrens 2007, 2).

The constant expansion of lignite mining (as well as the construction of housing in previously undeveloped areas) resulted in a reduction of arable land. From 1971 to 1985, a total of 45,729 hectares of cropland across the GDR was reallocated to lignite mining. The total area of reclaimed mining fields, at 12,945 hectares for the same period, lagged far behind the total area of reallocated croplands, both in terms of quantity and quality (in particular soil utility).­­ In the period from 1971 to 1975, approximately 35 percent (4,914 ha) of the area that had been appropriated for mining (14,282 ha) was reclaimed, while in the period from 1981 to 1985 that figure was only 19 percent (3,038 ha reclaimed/15,930 ha appropriated).

The Bezirk of Cottbus provides a good illustration of the consequences of the lignite revival for nature conservation. Cottbus had established itself as one of the GDR’s principal coal and energy Bezirke early on, following the launch of a national coal and energy program in 1957. The east of the district contained 45 percent of the country’s industrially accessible lignite reserves. The three lignite mines VE Braunkohlenkombinat Senftenberg, VE Kombinat Cottbus, and VEB Schwarze Pumpe Lauchhammer employed approximately 79,000 people in the 1980s, amounting to 49.5 percent of all employees in the industry.[1] In the early 1980s, the SED and the political leadership resolved to significantly expand lignite mining. Extraction targets for the Bezirk of Cottbus were set to rise from 148.9 million tonnes in 1980 to 200 million tonnes in 1990, and to stay at that level for “decades.” The District Assembly of Cottbus therefore placed 45 lignite deposits totaling 172,000 hectares under protection. These “protected mining areas” (Bergbauschutzgebiete) comprised 21 percent of the total area of the district.

In 1980, there were 11 surface mines in operation. By 1989 six more had been started and five others—according to government plans—were supposed to be shut down due to reserve depletion. Records indicate that in 2000, operations were to commence at 21 surface mines. Three hundred areas (villages, municipal districts, and residential developments) would have been affected by lignite mining.

Nature conservation was essentially a lost cause in lignite mining areas. The consequences of lignite mining included the razing of towns and landscapes, reductions in ground water levels, changes in topography, increased environmental impacts due to air and water pollution, and spoil banks. If the mining program had been carried out as planned, 12 nature reserves with a total area of 1,044 hectares, large parts of 14 landscape protection areas, and 17 parks with a total area of 129 hectares would have been bulldozed. In addition, 16 nature reserves and 32 parks would have been affected over the long term by reductions in groundwater levels (Wittig 1982, 4–17).

The only jobs remaining to the ILN and its volunteers in those areas which actually were affected was to step up their efforts at taking inventories and documenting natural processes in nature reserves, and to resettle selected animal and plant populations to alternative biotopes.

In April 1989, the ILN presented a paper titled Concept for the Development of Nature Conservation Measures in the Kreis of Weisswasser in View of the Expansion of Surface Lignite Mining Begun in 1988.[2] Its predictions for the future of nature conservation were gloomy. According to the paper, the expansion of lignite mining would result in 62 percent of the district of Weisswasser being razed. Approximately 90 percent of the district would experience reductions in groundwater levels, and a number of nature conservation areas and objects would suffer increased environmental damage as a result of emissions. It called for as much information as possible to be collected from the protected areas that were threatened with destruction in order to document what had been worthy of protection there. It also recommended that genetic resources be secured and an attempt be made to resettle certain animal and plant species to other locations.


Paucke, H. 1994: Chancen für Umweltpolitik und Umweltforschung. Zur Situation in der ehemaligen DDR. Marburg.

Roesler, J. 2012: Geschichte der DDR. Köln.

Wenzel, S. 1998: Plan und Wirklichkeit. Zur DDR-Ökonomie. Dokumentation und Erinnerungen, St. Katharinen.

Wittig, H. 1982: Aufgaben der Gesellschaft für Natur und Umwelt im Kulturbund der DDR unter den Bedingungen erhöhter Leistungsanforderungen an die Kohle- und Energiewirtschaft im Bezirk Cottbus. Natur und Landschaft im Bezirk Cottbus. SH. Cottbus.

[1]     In 1992, only 37,000 people made their living in the coal industry (Grünstift 10 (5), 36).

[2]     “Konzept zur Entwicklung der Naturschutzarbeit im Kreis Weißwasser unter der Ausweitung des Braunkohlenbergbaues ab 1988 (Bestandteil der komplexterritorialen Raumstudie Weißwasser),” 7 April 1989, folder of correspondence for the Bezirk of Cottbus 1974–1989 (Schriftwechsel Bezirk Cottbus), ILN Archive, Brandenburg Landesamt für Umwelt.