Alta. halts Category 2 coal exploration; keeps input terms

Albertans will be able to share their environmental concerns as part of upcoming public consultations over a new coal policy for the province, said Energy Minister Sonya Savage. | Mike Sturk photo

The Alberta government has halted coal exploration on Category 2 lands in the Eastern Slopes region of the Rocky Mountains in response to extensive public feedback, said Energy Minister Sonya Savage.

It includes a three-week online survey by the government ending April 19 that attracted nearly 25,000 respondents, she said during a news conference April 23.

She also emphasized Albertans will be able to share their environmental concerns as part of upcoming public consultations over a new coal policy for the province.

“To be absolutely clear, no one will be restricted from sharing their concerns, including any environmental concerns, including impacts of coal on water,” she said.

However, the terms of reference for a committee undertaking the consultations has not changed, she said in a subsequent email.

The terms of reference first came to light on April 15. It was posted on a provincial government website without any official announcement, and it did not mention land or water use, or the environment.

The document is dated to March 29, when Savage first announced the formation of the five-member committee.

“If those terms of reference were there on March 29, they should have been released and discussed when the formation of the committee was announced,” said Ian Urquhart, conservation director of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“And when something like that isn’t revealed, people have a right to be suspicious,” he said, pointing to the narrow focus of the document.

However, Savage said April 23 the government and the committee are committed to an open and honest dialogue with Albertans.

“That’s why today in response to concerns raised by Albertans, I’m announcing that all coal exploration projects in Category 2 lands will be halted immediately. This suspension will stay in place at a minimum until public engagement is completed, at which point the results of the consultation will dictate the next steps.”

Due to public opposition that included farmers and ranchers, Savage announced Feb. 8 the provincial government was reinstating a 45-year-old coal policy implemented in 1976.

It divides the province into four land categories that dictate how coal leasing, exploration and development can occur.

The policy was temporarily rescinded last year by the provincial government, easing the potential development of open-pit coal mines in Category 2 lands in the Eastern Slopes.

It raised fears of toxic levels of contaminants, such as selenium, from open-pit coal mining entering headwaters, such as those of the Oldman River system, potentially affecting producers and communities across much of Alberta.

Thirty-five scientists at the University of Alberta sent a letter to provincial MLAs stating April 16 that young animals, including humans, are acutely sensitive to toxins dissolved in water.

Urquhart said April 16 the terms of reference were a “staggering betrayal of the public’s trust.”

Bobbi Lambright of the Livingstone Landowners Group said in an earlier interview that the provincial government’s handling of the issue was “intended to make people believe one thing while they go about doing another, and I mean, that is just wrong.”

However, committee chair Ron Wallace told the April 23 news conference that “Albertans deserve better discussion on such an important issue, while respecting the need for an open debate on the issue.

“Quite frankly, I disagree with the negative tone of some of those opinions that have been expressed, some of which have received widespread media attention.

“I also want to say that any comments to the effect that this committee will not hear concerns from the public on air, land or water is false.”

Laura Laing of the Plateau Cattle Co. operates a ranch in the area and was part of a legal action against the province.

A court hearing was held Jan. 19-20 into whether a judicial review should be held into the provincial government’s original decision to rescind the coal policy. Ranchers allege the decision was made without public input.

“I just keep going back to, you know, trust was broken before this began,” she said.

Two independent studies into the potential impact of open-pit coal mining have been separately launched by producers and landowners in Alberta.

As a retired provincial civil servant, and later former assistant deputy minister for energy, David Luff helped implement the coal policy in the 1970s. During the formation of the consultation committee, he suggested to Savage the group should be independent.

He holds the provincial government accountable for making “a serious error when they rescinded the policy.”

However, he said Savage deserves credit for her subsequent actions. “She said, ‘look, we made a mistake. I personally want to fix it’ … And everything she’s done, or said that she would do, in fact, she has done.”

The committee is expected to conduct public engagement until Sept. 15. A final report on the engagement is to be submitted Oct. 15, with a report with recommendations for Savage to be filed on Nov. 15.

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