Alberta pauses coal lease sales

Due to growing public opposition to its plans for the development of open-pit coal mines on Alberta’s eastern slopes, the provincial government has blinked.

“We have listened carefully to the concerns raised in recent days, and thank those who spoke up with passion,” energy minister Sonya Savage said in a statement Jan. 18.

“As a result, we will pause future coal lease sales in former Category 2 lands. The coal leases from the December 2020 auction will be cancelled.”

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The provincial government decided last year to rescind a 44-year-old coal policy that limited surface coal mine development in much of Alberta’s side of the Rocky Mountains.

The policy, which was established in 1976 after several years of public consultation and review, divided the eastern slopes into four categories. Only underground coal mining was allowed in Category 2 lands.

The current provincial government made a mistake by not seeking public input before rescinding the coal policy, said David Luff, a retired Alberta civil servant who is a former assistant deputy minister for energy.

“I think that Premier (Jason) Kenney, when he came into power, the economy of Alberta had been hurting for a number of years and he was, I think, sold a bill of goods from the Coal Association of Canada, from the Australian coal companies, that coal would be the saviour for the economy of the province.

“And he didn’t do his homework. He didn’t really sit back and evaluate what he was hearing, or reach out to Albertans to find out what they wanted and what they felt was important, so I think in some ways the approach that was taken was a knee-jerk reaction.”

Although the announcement Jan. 18 is a small step in the right direction, “the threat of open-pit, mountaintop removal is still very real,” said Laura Laing of the Plateau Cattle Co. near Nanton, Alta. She fears it could harm the ranch her family depends on for their livelihood.

Along with her husband, John Smith, and neighbour, Mac Blades of the Rocking P Ranch, she is seeking a judicial review of the provincial government’s decision to rescind the coal policy. A hearing into the request was to be held today and tomorrow at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary.

“It’s been a toll on our mental wellness,” said Laing about her family’s months-long fight to be heard.

“It’s been sleepless nights.… And now, you know, I think what’s really helped us in this past week is to know that we have support from people we don’t know who are reaching out from all over the place calling us just to thank us for speaking out.”

Plateau Cattle Co. near Nanton, Alta., in the ranch’s grazing allotment in the Mt. Livingston Range. | Laura Laing photo

Luff, who joined the provincial government in 1975, helped implement the coal policy. He said it grew out of the vision of then-Premier Peter Lougheed to create a desirable quality of life for Albertans far into the future.

Lougheed wanted to ensure there would be a healthy balance between jobs from resource development on the one hand and the environment on the other, he said, with a key factor being the protection of Alberta’s water.

“And in some ways … his vision for the province was prophetic in that water today that’s coming from the eastern slopes is even more scarce now than it was back then because of climate change and a whole bunch of things.”

Water pollution from toxic selenium derived from open-pit coal mining has been a concern in British Columbia’s Elk Valley area, with Teck Resources Ltd. paying hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to deal with the problem.

Sparwood, B.C., was forced to close some of its water wells because of selenium, said Luff. It makes no sense to risk the same thing happening in Alberta.

However, Savage said coal development remains an important part of Western Canada’s economy, particularly for rural communities. The announcement Jan. 18 “has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review,” she said.

However, she added, “we are committed to demonstrating that it will only be developed responsibly under Alberta’s modern regulatory standards and processes.”


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