Alta. gov’t posts terms of reference for coal consultation

Despite public concerns about the potential impact of open-pit coal mines in terms of land and water use, the terms of reference said the committee's mandate "will only focus on matters related to coal that are under the administration of the Minister of Energy," who is Sonya Savage. | Laura Laing photo

The Alberta government’s handling of upcoming public consultations about open-pit coal mining in the province’s Eastern Slopes is an exercise in smoke and mirrors, says a ranch owner.

“I have never in all my years seen a government that works so hard to do the wrong thing,” said Bobbi Lambright, secretary and director of the Livingstone Landowners Group.

The provincial government posted on its website the terms of reference for the committee that will be conducting the consultations. No official announcement or news conference were given about the document’s existence.

Despite public concerns about the potential impact of open-pit coal mines in terms of land and water use, the terms of reference said the committee’s mandate “will only focus on matters related to coal that are under the administration of the Minister of Energy,” who is Sonya Savage.

After public opposition ranging from producers to Canadian entertainers, Savage announced Feb. 8 the provincial government was reinstating a 45-year-old provincial coal policy first implemented in 1976.

It was rescinded last year by the provincial government, easing the development of open-pit coal mines on the Eastern Slopes.

The provincial government’s actions raised fears of toxic levels of contaminants, such as selenium, from open-pit coal mining entering the Oldman River system, potentially affecting producers and communities across much of Alberta.

The terms of reference, which contains four pages, does not mention the environment. It instead said the “engagement, report and recommendations will describe Albertans’ understanding of the coal policy and consider their objectives for development of coal in Alberta.”

It said the public engagement process will be guided by questions such as “under what conditions would Albertans support coal development?”

Other questions include “do Albertans perceive Alberta as one of the world’s jurisdictions with responsible development?” and “are Albertans aware of the legislation and regulations that govern coal development?”

Ian Urquhart, conservation director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, said in a statement the terms of reference are a “staggering betrayal of the public’s trust.”

He said they contradict Savage’s March 26 reassurances that public consultation would be an “open conversation” and that “there’s definitely not a predetermined outcome.”

However, a spokesperson for Savage defended her in an email.

“Our goal is to ensure the government’s approach to coal reflects the best interests of Albertans and will balance stringent environmental protections and the approach to resource development going forward,” said Jennifer Henshaw, senior press secretary for the Office of the Minister of Energy.

“Albertans have clearly told us that they want a say in how the province will manage coal — and that’s why we have embarked on widespread engagement.”

She said the engagement “is largely focused on the aspects of coal that sparked public concern after the 1976 coal policy was rescinded in June 2020 — for example, the protections outlined under the coal categories.”

Henshaw added the committee “would not be looking at broader land use planning or water allocations which go beyond the scope of coal.”

Lambright said the process was “shrouded in smoke and mirrors. And it’s intended to make people believe one thing while they (provincial government) go about doing another, and I mean, that is just wrong.”

Savage announced March 29 the provincial government had appointed what it called an independent external committee to lead a “comprehensive public engagement to inform the development of a modern coal policy for Alberta.”

The five-member committee was to have been responsible for designing and conducting the engagement, said a provincial statement. Albertans were in the meantime invited to share their thoughts in an online survey until April 19.

The terms of reference said the committee is to conduct public engagement between March 29 and Sept. 15. A final report on the engagement is to be submitted Oct. 15.

A report on the “strategic goals, desired objectives and recommendations to the Minister of Energy” is to be filed on Nov. 15.

Meanwhile, the Alberta NDP hoped to win debate in the provincial legislature for a private members bill that would protect much of the Eastern Slopes from open-pit coal mining.

The bill by the NDP was unexpectedly given unanimous consent April 13 by a committee that decides which private members bills can proceed to the legislature. However, it likely won’t be debated before the end of the current sitting of the legislature because of the list of bills ahead of it on the schedule.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said she suspected the governing United Conservative Party allowed the bill to go to committee “because they don’t want to be caught voting it down.”

She hoped to get the bill moved up on the legislature’s schedule April 19.

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