Alta. NDP propose Eastern Slopes coal mining ban

Alberta’s opposition NDP will be launching 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 Kavi Bal, director of strategic planning for the Office of the Premier, said in an email that plans for public consultations already slated for March 29 are currently being finalized and will be shared with Albertans.

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

As part of a brief statement Feb. 23, energy minister Sonya Savage said public consultations for a new modern coal policy for Alberta will start on March 29.

“The details of the process will be announced before consultations begin,” she said.

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 It had been rescinded effective June 1, 2020, sparking public opposition that ranged from farmers and ranchers to Canadian entertainers such as Corb Lund, Jann Arden and k. d. lang.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 mines contaminating water in the Oldman River system, potentially affecting everything from irrigated farms to communities across much of Alberta.

The current lack of details about the public consultation process has been a warning sign for critics such as Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“I would have hoped that the government would appreciate that through their actions, Albertans don’t trust them anymore,” he said in a recent interview.

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

“Albertans know how harmful coal mining is to our mountains,” said Schmidt, who will be introducing the private member’s bill as the MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar.

“And part of what has made people so angry is the secretive, misleading way the government has tried to advance this plan.”

However, Bal said the “NDP during their time in government took no action on a modernized coal policy or consultation,” pointing to a letter dated May 24, 2016, by then-NDP environment minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd.

She responded to the Ram River Coal Corp., which was seeking clarity about the 1976 coal policy.

“The coal Category 2 designation does not preclude surface coal mine development.… 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.”

However, the current provincial government under the United Conservative Party has failed to convince people like Bobbi Lambright of the Livingstone Landowners Group.

“This is not just an emotional reaction on the part of people who love the beautiful mountains,” she said during the news conference.

“We love those mountains, too. But you also recognise 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 members bill also includes:

  • An immediate stop to coal exploration and development on the Eastern Slopes, along with cancelling exploration permits.
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  • 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. And Albertans have already told this government that they are on the wrong track, and that they need to reverse really darn quickly.”

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