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Ukrainian coal miners say they're on the energy front line in the war with Russia

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

While the brutal fighting in Ukraine goes on, concerns are already growing about the coming winter and Ukraine's ability to heat its homes. The country has vast energy resources but depends on imports. As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, there are hopes in coal-rich eastern Ukraine that may change.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's the beginning of a shift at this eastern Ukrainian coal mine. Men and women in stained uniforms crowd into a dark elevator platform and descend some 265 meters below the surface into a wide tunnel. The crew walks out across metal platforms laid across the hard rock floor, scanning in for their shift and cramming into a small metal tram with wood plank seats - four people to a car. Oleksander Aksonov is the mine's chief engineer.

OLEKSANDER AKSONOV: (Through interpreter) So people are taken by these wagons on horizontal routes and also, it declines.

ROTT: Another hundred-plus meters below the surface.

AKSONOV: (Through interpreter) So we'll use a kind of transport with these monorails.

ROTT: A series of monorails, actually - three in total to get where we're going. Riding down, Aliona Samarsk, one of the mine's employees, leans towards us in the cart.

ALIONA SAMARSK: (Through interpreter) Aren't you afraid?

ROTT: Should I be?

SAMARSK: (Through interpreter) Yes.

ROTT: I thought being underground is the safest place to be right now in Ukraine.

SAMARSK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: The miners think so. A lot of them think so.

ROTT: Underground mining, dangerous as it can be, is normal. Missile strikes? Not so much. All the same, we've agreed not to give the exact name or location of this mine for security reasons. Russia has repeatedly targeted Ukraine's electrical infrastructure since the start of the war and taken control of multiple coal mines, part of a wider campaign, Ukrainian officials say, to cripple the country and its economy. That's why some coal miners, like the ones we meet at the end of the rail, some seven kilometers into the mine, call this the war's other front line.

IAN KALVECHUKIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "It's very important for us to be here," says miner Ian Kalvechukian, "providing our country with energy, with power." It's a role coal miners here are more than happy to embrace. Their industry has long been on a similar trajectory to coal mining in the U.S. - down, phased out by cleaner energy sources, like natural gas and renewables, as Ukraine looks to give itself a more Euro-friendly energy portfolio. Now, Aksonov says, standing next to a boring machine at the end of the tunnel...

AKSONOV: (Through interpreter) I believe that the demand for coal in the whole world will increase because - due to the sanctions, the import of oil is limited now. So coal will be in high demand.

ROTT: He's not wrong. Coal demand has increased globally over the last year as gas prices have climbed, in part because of Russia's invasion. Earlier this month, Ukraine suspended exports of gas and coal. And its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, stressing the importance of both, warned of the winter ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "Due to Russia's aggression, this will indeed be the most difficult heating season since independence," he said. Hearing the calls for more extraction, more fossil fuels, Iryna Holovko sits in her Kyiv office and shakes her head.

IRYNA HOLOVKO: I do hope that this would be really short-term solution.

ROTT: Holovko is the head of Ecoaction, one of the largest environmental organizations in Ukraine. She wears a pin of Lisa Simpson on her shirt.

Lisa Simpson?

HOLOVKO: Yeah.

ROTT: Why?

HOLOVKO: I feel like Lisa Simpson in this world (laughter). It's not easy.

ROTT: (Laughter).

Holovko says that before the war, Ukraine was on a path towards decarbonizing its economy. Coal plants and mines were in decline. Coal communities were warming to the idea of a just transition. Ukraine pledged at the Glasgow Climate Conference to go fossil fuel-free by 2035.

HOLOVKO: And now the priority is on the internal extraction.

HOLOVKO: She gets it. The country is in a war. But longer term, she says, shifting to renewables is still the better answer. It provides energy independence and helps fight climate change. Herman Halushchenko is Ukraine's minister of energy.

HERMAN HALUSHCHENKO: In the long term, of course, we should follow this green course and this Paris agreement and everything.

ROTT: But he says the concerns about the next heating season, next winter, are very real and very now.

HALUSHCHENKO: They hit and target the energy sector because they know that we are preparing for the next heating season. So that's quite a challenge for us.

ROTT: Halushchenko says there are coal mines that could be modernized, even expanded, to help meet Ukraine's energy demands. And he says the country already has agreements in place with American-based Westinghouse Electric Company to build more nuclear plants as soon as the war is over. But in the short term, the country needs to do everything it can to provide for its immediate needs, which brings us back to the energy front line, nearly 400 meters underground in eastern Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM BLARING)

ROTT: The miners direct us to put on respirators and move to a tunnel wall before keying hydraulics that move a gnarled circular drill bit up towards the rock wall at the tunnel's end. Small seams of coal glitter in the headlamp's light.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: The tunnel becomes a cloud of fine particulate. Fist-sized chunks of rock fall to a conveyor belt below. Normally, they do this six hours a day. After the demonstration, Oleksander Aksonov, the mine's chief engineer, says he hopes investments will be made in the region's coal industry.

AKSONOV: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "After the 24 of February," he says, "our miners realized how important their work is to provide Ukraine with power because," he says, "that work is on their shoulders now." For how long, nobody knows.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, eastern Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "RELIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.