By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN, June 3 (Reuters) - The eastern German state of Brandenburg approved plans on Tuesday to allow utility Vattenfall to mine a further 200 million tonnes of brown coal from 2026, a move critics say will cause pollution and also force 800 people from their homes.
The decision by Brandenburg's cabinet, made up of centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the more radical Left party, highlights the complexities of Germany's energy policy, which aims to promote renewable energy.
While Germany has seen a rapid expansion in green energy, which accounts for about 25 percent of power, Europe's industrial powerhouse still needs to tap conventional sources for a secure supply, especially due to its nuclear phase-out. Coal is also cheaper than renewable energy.
"In essence, this is about a safe, sustainable and an affordable as possible supply of energy," said the office of Brandenburg state premier Dietmar Woidke after the decision.
Brown coal - also known as lignite - has a high moisture content and can be susceptible to spontaneous combustion, making it difficult to store and transport. Therefore, it is often burnt in power stations near to mines. It also emits more carbon dioxide when burnt compared with other types of coal, making it more harmful to the environment.
Opponents of the fuel, which accounts for about a quarter of German power, have campaigned hard for its use to be halted because of the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions and because they say about 800 local residents will be forced to relocate to make way for the new open-cast mining.
But its advocates say brown coal allows the use of domestic raw materials for a reliable source of electricity, especially in industrial parts of Germany, and reduces the need for energy imports.
"We are committed to the expansion of renewable energy," said Woidke. "However, brown coal is indispensable as a bridge into the era of renewable energy."
The mine at Welzow-South, in the Lusatia area and near the town of Cottbus, has been the site of big protests by environmental activists and residents who fear they will be forced to relocate.
The aim is for brown coal to be phased out eventually but in the meantime Vattenfall is a big operator of the open-cast mines in eastern Germany and RWE has mines in the western industrial belt in North Rhine-Westphalia.
"Today is a black day for the area of Lusatia and for climate protection," said Greenpeace, adding that the decision went back on Germany's shift towards renewable energy. The roughly 200 million tonnes of coal from Welzow-South alone would produce four times as much CO2 as Sweden in a year, it said.
"Politically it's a scandal, in human terms it's a tragedy," said the environmentalist group.
Woidke said the state would evaluate what compensation for removals and other losses would be appropriate.
Germany's Constitutional Court ruled in December that brown coal mining and the use of domestic raw materials overall was a matter for the government although it said citizens' rights must be respected in terms of relocation and compensation.
The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is studying whether its Garzweiler II brown coal mining region, run by RWE, should continue after 2030. (Additional reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Stephen Brown and Pravin Char)
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