The Czech government agreed to broaden CEZ AS’s lignite-mining territory, ending a 24-year-old environmental ban put in place to protect villages near the Bilina open-pit mine.

Breaking the limits will give state-controlled CEZ access to extra reserves of up to 120 million tons of the fuel and extend mining until 2055, Industry and Trade Minister Jan Mladek said in a statement on Monday. Limits at a rival CSA mine, owned by the closely-held Severni Energeticka AS, will remain in place because they lie too close to some villages, he said.

The limits on open-pit lignite mining were imposed in 1991 to make a clean break with the former Czechoslovak communist regime which put industrial production above environmental concerns. The pits have ruined vast swaths of landscape in the northern Czech region of Usti and led to destruction and forced relocation of entire towns and their citizens.

“It was not an easy step, but it’s a responsible one regarding the energy security of our country in the coming decades,” Mladek said in the statement. The coal will mainly be destined for heating utilities, he said.

CEZ operates 13 coal-fired power plants, mostly in the northern part of the country in the vicinity of the mines. The plants generate about 44 percent of the utility’s domestic electricity output.

Geologically younger and more pollution-causing than hard coal, lignite is mostly found near the surface of the Earth, making open-pit mines the most economical way to extract it. Lignite use in Europe fell 40 percent from 1990 to 2010 as governments across the former Soviet bloc nations closed aging industrial plants.

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