Alta. coal consultation worries conservationist

The Alberta government has announced public consultations on an updated coal policy will begin March 29, but the lack of details is troubling for Ian Urquhart.

“We don’t know what they have in mind,” said Urquhart, who is the conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Such vagueness includes the identity of six coal projects currently under exploration for potential development, he said.

As part of a brief statement on Feb. 23, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced a date for the start of public consultations about issues such as open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes.

“I have directed my department officials to bring forward a comprehensive consultation plan that is by Albertans and for Albertans,” she said.

“The details of the process will be announced before consultations begin. With the input of Albertans, a modern coal policy will protect the areas Albertans cherish while allowing responsible resource development in the appropriate places.”

The provincial government announced Feb. 8 it was fully reinstating a 45-year-old coal policy implemented in 1976 limiting open-pit coal mining in much of the eastern slopes.

The policy had been rescinded effective June 1, 2020, sparking widespread public opposition ranging from ranchers and farmers to Canadian entertainers such as Corb Lund, Jann Arden and k. d. lang.

It raised fears of toxic levels of selenium caused by open-pit coal mining contaminating water in the Oldman River system, potentially affecting ranches, irrigated farms and communities across much of Alberta.

Savage said Feb. 8 “we recognize that rescinding this policy has caused tremendous fear and anxiety, that Alberta’s majestic eastern slopes would be forever damaged by mountaintop and open-pit coal mining. Let me be clear, this will not happen in Alberta.”

However, she said six projects are being explored, with four of them undertaken before the coal policy was rescinded.

“This means that core samples are being taken, perhaps roads are being built, it does not mean that a project will be developed.”

During the Feb. 8 announcement, she said “no mountaintop removal will be permitted, and all of the restrictions under the 1976 coal categories are to apply on surface mining in Category 2 land. Number two, all future coal development and coal lease sales on Category 2 land is to be paused indefinitely pending consultations on a new modern coal policy.”

As part of an email Feb. 12 to Kavi Bal, director of strategic planning for the Office of the Premier, Urquhart asked that the six projects be identified. He also asked if they constitute future coal development, or if they are on Category 2 land and eligible under the 1976 coal policy to apply to Savage for an exemption.

After not receiving a reply, Urquhart reprimanded Bal in an email on Feb.17.

“If you don’t intend to respond to the two simple, straightforward questions I asked you please be honest enough to tell me that.”

Bal apologized that day and said the “lack of response was not intentional but a missed email on my part. I will look into your request this morning and circle back with you.”

Urquhart said Feb. 25 he had yet to receive an answer. Bal was listed on the Feb. 23 statement by Savage as the contact for media inquiries.

“This is par for the course and we don’t hear anything,” said Urquhart.

“We wrote a letter about coal to Savage in January that we haven’t yet received a response … so a minister who won’t answer a simple question like, ‘who are the six projects, what are the six projects,’ this is the minister that I’m supposed to trust is going to do a fair job when it comes to consultation?”

Urquhart has called for an independent third-party panel of experts to gather public input on a new coal policy for Alberta.

“It has really seemed to me that this is a government in all sorts of ways has been shooting itself in the foot … and I think if (Premier Jason) Kenney’s government wants to retain public trust, they have to go outside of their political realm.”

They must go beyond the existing department structure to people who aren’t linked to the governing United Conservative Party, he said.

Bal told The Western Producer in an email Feb. 24 that “all these details are currently being finalized … and there will be an announcement with the details prior to the start of consultations on March 29.”

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