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Alberta NDP introduces bill to ban coal mining

The private member’s bill would stop future mining on the Eastern Slopes and require consultations on the region’s future

Alberta’s opposition NDP plans to start a private member’s bill to immediately ban future coal mining for all categories of land on the province’s Eastern Slopes.

“The bill would then require a full consultation, based on current and best science, with all Albertans and with Indigenous communities to establish effective protections across the Eastern Slopes,” said NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt during a news conference March 15.

The proposed legislation, called an Act to Protect Our Mountains, would also “stop currently planned changes to water allocations, including from the Oldman River Basin, and prioritize community, agricultural and ecological needs and health,” said an NDP statement.

“Industrial coal projects should not receive special treatment.”

But Energy Minister Sonya Savage said the NDP’s record while in government is “significantly different than the things that they are saying today.”

During a meeting March 16 of the standing committee on resource stewardship, she pointed to a letter dated May 24, 2016, by then-NDP environment minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd responding to Ram River Coal Corp. The company was seeking clarity about coal development.

“The coal Category 2 designation does not preclude surface coal mine development…,” said McCuaig-Boyd in the letter. “While we will continue to work on regional and sub-regional planning for this and other areas, these processes are not intended to prevent developments that make sense.”

Savage said the current government under the United Conservative Party (UCP) will be holding public consultations starting March 29. It will not be “prejudging what (Albertans) are going to say” on things such as coal leases on category 2 lands, she said.

“Albertans will tell us how they want to see coal development — if they want to see coal development. And if they want to see coal development, where it will be, whether it’s in Category 2 or 3, 4 lands, we want to hear from Albertans.”

Kavi Bal, director of strategic planning for the Office of the Premier, said in an email March 15 that plans for public consultations are being finalized.

“The coal consultation process is being designed to hear all of the perspectives on future coal development from Albertans, including First Nations.”

The provincial government announced Feb. 8 it was fully reinstating a 45-year-old coal policy implemented in 1976 that limited open-pit coal mining in much of the Eastern Slopes. It had been rescinded effective June 1, 2020, sparking public opposition that included farmers and ranchers.

It raised fears of toxic levels of selenium caused by open-pit coal mines contaminating water in the Oldman River system and potentially irrigated farms and communities.

The current lack of details about the public consultation process has been a warning sign for critics such as Ian Urquhart of the Alberta Wilderness Association. He called for an independent third-party panel of experts to gather public input on a new coal policy.

Schmidt will be introducing the private member’s bill as MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar. Part of what has made “people so angry is the secretive, misleading way the government has tried to advance this (coal) plan,” he said.

However, Savage said the NDP government approved the Vista open-pit coal mine near Hinton, Alta. “I would be interested in hearing during the coal consultations the views of the NDP on coal exploration, because, again, their record while in government speaks very significantly different than what they’re saying now.”

The Alberta government’s decision last year to ease restrictions on coal mining on the Eastern Slopes has ignited opposition across the province. | Mike Sturk photo

Opposition to coal development is not just an emotional reaction on the part of people who love the mountains, said Bobbi Lambright of the Livingstone Landowners Group during the news conference.

“We love those mountains, too. But you also recognize very quickly that when you go in and start to blast literally tens of thousands of acres of mountain, and deposit waste for rock in the valleys, you are opening the door to a level of destruction and disruption that is unprecedented and extremely concerning to all of us who value those areas.”

Besides ending proposed changes that would allocate more water from the Oldman River system above the Oldman reservoir for open-pit coal mines, the private member’s bill also includes:

  • An immediate stop to coal exploration and development on the Eastern Slopes, along with cancelling exploration permits.
  • Permanently cancelling all coal leases and applications in Categories 1 and 2 lands under the 1976 coal policy, as well as all other leases on the Eastern Slopes issued after May 2019.
  • Permanently banning all future coal activities in Categories 1 and 2 as a minimum.
  • Suspending “further future coal activity on the remainder of the Eastern Slopes pending further consultation and establishment of new legislated protections for lands, headwaters and biodiversity,” said the NDP statement.

“This regional plan needs to be based on the best and most current standards in science, input from all Albertans, and on a thorough consultation with Indigenous peoples as required under the Constitution Act, 1982.”

The private member’s bill must first go to committee before it can proceed to the provincial legislature, said Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley. Changes to rules by the UCP now allow such bills to be killed in committee, she added.

“But what we also know is that Albertans have a voice, and Albertans have influence.”

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