Nature has bestowed Poland generously with both non-renewable and renewable resources. The latter, such as wind and solar energy, are used more and more frequently, their growing popularity supported by great advances in technology.
Poland is a country rich in minerals. It is among the world's biggest producers of hard and brown coal, copper, zinc, lead, sulphur, rock salt and construction minerals.
As early as in antiquity, the country was famous for its amber, transported along the Amber Route from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic coast. The largest amounts of amber, often called Baltic gold, were found at the mouth of the Vistula and on the Sambia Peninsula (now in Russia's Kaliningrad Region). It was a much valued material at that time and played a major role in barter trade with the Meditterranean. Amber was traded most intensively in the second century AD.
Today Poland remains a major supplier of this material, with its resources estimated at 12,000 tons. The richest deposit is Mozdzanowo, where a variety of colours and shades can be found, including some 60 percent of transparent amber. Significant deposits also exist at the base of the Hel Peninsula, but they are located too deep (130m). Curiously, new and promising deposits have been recently discovered in the Lublin Upland.
The earliest evidence of mining in Poland dates back to 3500 BC when flint was mined by Neolithic tool makers. In Krzemionki Opatowskie, there is one of the world's best preserved flint workings (3500-1200 BC). This is also one of the most valuable archeological sites in Europe.
In the fourth century BC iron ore started to be mined in the Silesian Upland and the Swietokrzyskie Mountains. At the same time quarries of construction and ceramic materials (stones, clays etc.) appeared in various parts of the country, as did lead, copper, silver and gold mines in Silesia and Malopolska.
In the Middle Ages mining rock salt in Bochnia and Wieliczka near Cracow was an important industry. The mines were royal property and under the Piasts and Jagiellons provided one-third of the state's income. Salt money was spent on maintaining the royal court, castles that protected trade routes, the army and the Cracow Academy (today's Jagiellonian University) founded in 1364 by King Casimir the Great.
That period also saw the emergence of the miner as a distinct occupation. In the 14th century capital companies known as gwarectwa appeared in Poland to mine precious metals on royal charter. This was the main branch of mining until the 17th century.
In the mid 18th century coal mining became prominent. The Silesian coalfields (Zaglebie Dabrowskie, Zaglebie Gornoslaskie, Zaglebie Krakowskie) grew into major industrial regions. In east Galicia, near Jaslo, Krosno and Boryslaw, oil mining developed a bit later. After the First World War, East Podkarpacie became a centre of natural gas mining. In 1919 a mining academy was established in Cracow with the aim of educating new engineers.
As a result of post-war border shifts, Poland lost most of its resources of oil and natural gas, while gaining rich deposits of coal in Upper and Lower Silesia. In the 1970s it became one of the world's biggest producers of hard coal. In 1979 a record 201 million tons were mined. Hard coal became the basic fuel and the main hard-currency earner, often referred to as "black gold". Until the late 1980s coal mining was considered to be a national industry and miners enjoyed great respect and prestige.
Hard and brown coal
Poland's reserves of hard coal are estimated at 45.4 billion tons. With the current annual production of 102 million tons (in 2000), they will suffice to meet the country's demand for almost 500 years, that is twice as long as the world's average. In fact, they will suffice for much longer as coal is being replaced in Polish economy with environment-friendly natural gas. For this reason, by 2020 the production of hard coal will be reduced to some 82 million tons a year, and by 2050 to about 40 million tons.
Poland has three major Upper Carboniferous coalfields, with 130 deposits of which 47 are currently exploited, their documented resources estimated at 16.6 billion tons.
The main coalfield (Gornoslaskie Zaglebie Weglowe) lies in the Silesian Upland and is among the biggest hard-coal fields in the world. With an area of about 4,500 sq km, it has as many as 108 deposits, and the most valuable ones, characterized by high heating value, are located in the west and north. Coal is currently mined in Silesia in 41 mines. So far, the Silesian miners have produced some 9 billion tons of this fuel.
Hard coal is also found in the Lublin Upland's Bogdanka coalfield (known as Lubelskie Zaglebie Weglowe and having 11 deposits). Coal seams stretch from the Polish-Ukrainian border to Radzyn Podlaski. There is only one mine here, called Bogdanka, but it is the most modern and profitable mine in the country. In 2000 it produced 4.25 million tons of coal.
Hard-coal deposits also exist in Lower Silesia, notably in the Walbrzych and Kamienna Gora area, but they are difficult to exploit and production is unprofitable, so all the local mines were closed down by 2000.
Second to hard coal among Poland's most important fuels is brown coal. Its reserves are estimated at nearly 14 billion tons. The deposits are located in eight regions, mainly in central Poland (coalfields at Konin, Belchatow and in Wielkopolska) and in its western part (at Turoszow on the Polish side of the Lusatian Neisse). Opening the mine at Turoszow in the 1950s marked the beginnings of brown-coal mining in Poland. Today the country is the world's sixth producer of this fuel, with 78 documented deposits, of which the exploited twelve have 2.1 billion tons.
Brown coal is utilized almost exclusively by the energy industry, with 98 percent used by large power plants. Mines are situated next to power plants with which they typically constitute one economic entity. Poland's biggest brown-coal power plant is Belchatow in the south of the Lodz province.
The Belchtow coalfield is at once the youngest and the biggest brown-coal field. Discovered in 1960, its deposits were estimated at 2 billion tons. There are actually three separate fields: Belchatow, Szczercow and Kamiensk. In 1981 a mine was opened here, which supplies the Belchatow power plant. It is the biggest and one of the most advanced opencast mines in the world. Coal is mined here from 100 to 230m below the ground level. The mine's current production is about 35 million tons a year and it is adjusted to the needs of the Belchatow power plant. In winter as many as 140,000 tons a day are produced. Mining is carried out predominantly in the Belchatow field (3,200 ha) which will be used up by 2017. In 2002 the Szczercow field is planned to be opened, which has similar geology and will additionally supply a new plant, Belchatow II. These resources will suffice until 2020-2030.
Brown coal is the cheapest fuel used in the energy industry. In Poland, the cost of producing 1 GJ of energy from it is three times lower than for hard coal, six times lower than for natural gas and over eight times lower than for heating oil. However, exploiting brown-coal fields is environmentally hazardous as it destroys large expanses of soil, changes the surface-water structure, causes air pollution and is noisy.
Oil and natural gas
Although the world oil industry was born in Poland, the country can't compare with Kuweit. On the other hand, Polish geologists, geophysicists and oil engineers have not said their last word yet. Top-class equipment and cutting-edge exploration techniques including 3-D seismography make it possible to discover gas in areas that were once believed to contain no hydrocarbons. Significant deposits of natural gas are much more likely to be found in Poland than oil deposits.
Natural oil seepages were known in Poland as early as in the 13th century. Oil oozed out of the ground and gathered on sandstone outcrops, stream banks or water surface in a wide belt along the northern rim of the Carpathians. In the 19th century wells dug out by hand to collect "rock oil" were a common sight in many parts of Podkarpacie. The substance was used then for lubricating cart wheels and as a medicine for the cattle. In 1854 Ignacy Lukasiewicz drilled the world's first oil well in Bobrka near Krosno.
Deposits of oil and natural gas have been discovered in the Carpathians, Carpathian Foreland (the Carpathian Depression), Sudetian Monocline and Pomerania. Currently there are 92 known and documented deposits of oil, estimated at 13.7 million tons. In 2000 underground deposits yielded 350,000 tons of oil (64,000 in the south and 279,000 in the Polish Lowland). This is far less than the country's needs: about 18 million tons of oil and 11 bcm of natural gas a year.
Since 1981 the Baltic shelf has been explored for oil. The Petrobaltic company, which holds a prospecting licence for 8,600 sq km of the shelf, has discovered the B3 deposit, situated 80km off the Rozewie Cape, and has started to exploit it. Another deposit, B8, will be soon ready for exploitation. The submarine resources, 1400m below the water surface, are estimated at 20 million tons. This is high-quality oil, almost sulphur-free. Today the Baltic oil accounts for about half of Poland's oil production.
The submarine oil deposits are accompanied by natural gas deposits; for every cubic metre of Baltic oil, there are 85 cubic metres of gas. So far, four gas-condensate deposits have been discovered, estimated at 10 bcm. This gas is planned to be utilized by a gas power station at Zarnowiec near Gdansk. Waste gas from the B3 field, now burning unproductively, will be transported through an 82km sea pipeline and then overland to the popular resort and major fishing harbour of Wladyslawowo, where it will be used by a thermal power plant.
As the Carpathian deposits have been largely used up and many of them are being closed down, now most of the country's oil and natural gas comes from the Polish Lowland. The significance of this region grew even more in 1996 with the finding of the Barnowko-Mostno-Buszewo (BMB) deposit near Gorzow Wielkopolski. This is Poland's biggest deposit, estimated at 10-12 million tons of oil and some 4.5 bcm of high-methane gas. The Polish Lowland natural gas is found mainly in Permian and Carboniferous rocks and has a high content of nitrogen. The gas from the Carpathians and Carpathian Foreland, found in Jurrasic, Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks, is of better quality, high on methane and low on sulphur.
Of the 242 documented deposits of natural gas in Poland, the biggest are: Przemysl in the Carpathian Foreland (nearly 21 bcm); Koscian (south-east of Poznan; 10.4 bcm), exploited only since 1999; and BMB. The biggest oil deposits are BMB and Cychry, also in the Polish Lowland.
In 2000 a very promising deposit was discovered at Miedzychod in the Notec Forest. It is almost certain to be as big as BMB, if not bigger. Other interesting exploration sites are located in the Carpathian Foreland, between Rzeszow, Przemysl, Lubaczow and Tarnogrod.
Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas deposits in Poland requires a licence granted by the Ministry of Environment. Polskie Gornictwo Naftowe i Gazownictwo SA (Polish Oil and Gas Company) holds 97 licences for 51,500 sq km. These are the best-surveyed areas in the country. 120 licences have been granted to foreign oil prospectors. Most of them (59 licence blocks) are held by companies co-established by Apache Corporation and FX Energy. Wielkopolska Energia SA, whose shareholders are El Paso Energy and Texaco, has 16 licences. Other licence holders include CalEnergy Gas Polska and RWE-DEA Polska Oil. Most active in the field of hydrocarbons exploration in Poland are the Americans. Apache Poland holds more licences than any other foreign prospector and has the largest seismic base. Its first success was the finding in 2000 of the Wilga natural gas deposit in central Poland, estimated at 1 bcm.
Metals, non-metals and rocks
The biggest resources of metals in Poland are those of copper, zinc and lead. Poland is one of the world's leading producers of copper.
Copper is extracted from sulphide ores found in Zechstein deposits, Europe's biggest and some of the biggest in the world. The deposits are located in two Lower Silesia geological units: the North Sudetian Basin (Niecka Polnocnosudecka) and the Sudetian Monocline (Monoklina Przedsudecka). The latter also contains many other metals including silver, gold, lead, selenium and nickel, all of which are mined.
The resources are estimated at 2.5 billion tons of ore, including 49 million tons of metallic copper. In 1998 the resources grew by 14% when the Glogow Gleboki deposit, situated at more than 1400m underground, was discovered. The resources of the already exploited deposits - Lubin, Polkowice, Rudna and Sieroszowice - are 1.5 billion tons of ore, including some 30 million tons of metallic copper.
Copper ore is mined only in the Legnica-Glogow Copper District by KGHM Polska Miedz SA, Poland's sole producer of copper from primary materials. In 2000, 27 million tons of ore were mined there, yielding about 480,000 tons of copper.
Zinc-lead ores are located in Malopolska, near Olkusz - one of the country's oldest mining centres, which developed by exploiting its lead and silver deposits until the 16th century when it began to decline - as well as near Boleslaw and Chrzanow.
Poland also has immense deposits of sulphur and is one of the biggest exporters of it. The deposits located in three areas of the Carpathian Depression - Staszow, Tarnobrzeg and Lubaczow - are among the richest in the world (504 million tons). Over the last few years sulphur production has dropped significantly and in 2000 it was 1.4 million tons, of which over 50% was exported. This reduction has been largely due to environmental considerations as it was necessary to remove sulphur from oil, natural gas and smelter gases produced by sulphur works.
Another mineral in great abundance is rock salt, its resources estimated at over 80 billion tons. Its biggest deposits are located in Kujawy (about 52 billion tons), Pomerania and the Carpathian Monocline where KGHM Polska Miedz SA mines it at Sieroszowice. Rock salt is also mined at Klodawa in the Kujawy region. It is no longer mined at Bochnia and Wieliczka, the cradle of Polish salt mining. The only work carried out there is for protecting the old chambers.
The annual production of salt in Poland is 3.2 million tons, with about 70% produced from brine. Brine deposits support the renowned spa at Ciechocinek where salt from the wooden graduation towers can be smelt from far away. Salty air with a great amount of iodine makes you feel like on the Baltic coast, although the sea is about 200km from here. Ciechocinek was famous for its subterranean brine springs already in the Middle Ages. In 1235 Duke Konrad of Mazovia granted the Teutonic Order the right to produce salt by evaporating the brine in exchange for 20 barrels of it a year. The Teutonic Knights built two saltworks in Ciechocinek which operated until the end of the 18th century. A new, enormous works was constructed in the mid 19th century and it was the largest factory of its kind in the world. The production techniques in Ciechocinek have not changed for 120 years.
All over the country there are also a variety of valuable rocks used for producing construction materials. The richest deposits are located in Upper and Lower Silesia, on the outskirts of the Swietokrzyskie Mountains and in the Lublin Upland. The most important for the economy are carbonate rocks: limestone, marl, dolomites and natural aggregate, used for road-building.
One treasure of Poland that until recently was used little or not at all is geothermal waters, their resources ranking among the richest in Europe. They are to be found at one-third of the country's area and are equivalent to some 3.5 billion tons of oil. This is sufficient for heating the houses of about 30 million people.
At the moment Poland has a few large geothermal plants. The first one was opened in Pyrzyce near Szczecin in 1997. Hot water (64*C) rises from a depth of 1700m. The biggest geothermal project currently underway in Poland is a chain of thermal plants in the Podhale region like the one already built in Banska Wyzna. Water at over 90*C is taken through four wells from a depth of about 3000m. At the moment three Podhale towns use the geothermal energy, including Zakopane (since 2001). By 2005 all of Podhale will be heated in this way.
Poland is not a major player in hydropower engineering but it has an over century-long tradition in this field and excellent natural conditions to utilize the energy of flowing water. In the 20th century about 500 large and medium power plants were built, as were numerous waterwheels that drive mills, sawmills and fulling mills. After 1945 the priority was large coal power plants, and hydroelectric plants were neglected. Today much effort is made to increase the amount of hydroenergy produced in Poland. The rivers with the greatest potential are the Vistula (80%) and the Odra (10%). Now a mere 15% of their energy is used. Altogether, there are 128 large water power plants and about 360 small plants in the country.
Almost one-third of Poland's territory is conducive for building wind power plants. The best area is the coastal belt from Swinoujscie to Gdansk, notably aroud the Rozewie Cape, followed by the Suwalki region, south-west Poland, parts of Wielkopolska and almost the entire Mazovia. Currently Poland has about a dozen of modern wind power plants with a capacity of about 2.5 MW each plus a few tens of smaller plants. The electric energy produced by wind power plants is estimated to account for some 0.002% of the country's total production. Optimistic assumptions hold that by 2030 wind power plants will have 6000-9000 MW of installed power, producing 10 TW of energy a year.
Poland also has a relatively large potential of biomass from wastes, which can be used to produce heat. It is also possible to utilize solar energy by constructing solar collectors. The country's climatic conditions allow for the yearly production of 300-500 kWh of energy from every square meter of collector surface, which is equivalent to 70-100kg of coal.
Renewable resources do not contribute significantly to Poland's economy but this contribution is bound to grow like in other European countries.