Coal policy reversal leaves more questions

Conservationists call for independent inquiry to determine what Alta. residents think about mining on the eastern slopes

Alberta needs an independent commission to examine the future of the eastern slopes, following the province’s decision to reinstate the 1976 coal policy, said an advocate.

“My worry is that governments — and this isn’t just (Premier Jason) Kenney’s government — will I think be tempted to structure consultations in ways that prefer the outcome they would like to see,” said Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“And that’s why I think an independent, third-party review panel would really be an honest way of assessing the views of Albertans about what should happen on these slopes.”

He was initially excited when Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Feb. 8 she was reinstating the 1976 coal policy limiting open-pit coal mining in much of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The cancellation of the policy effective June 1 eased the development of such mining in Category 2 lands, sparking widespread public opposition.

Savage said she recognized “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, Urquhart said he has concerns about differences between Savage’s words and the language used in a directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator.

He said the directive allows mountaintop removal to proceed in Category 4 land, which includes the proposed $800-million Grassy Mountain project near Blairmore, Alta. A joint federal-provincial review panel is to submit a report on the project to Ottawa.

There are currently six projects being explored for potential coal development, with four of them undertaken before the policy was rescinded, said Savage.

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

David Luff, a retired Alberta civil servant who helped implement the 1976 coal policy, said the provincial government must clarify what it means by its use of different terms for coal mining,

“The minister was very, very clear that mountaintop removal coal mining would not be allowed anywhere in Alberta — is Grassy Mountain mountaintop removal coal mining, is it open pit, surface mining?”

Urquhart said such terms could be interpreted in ways that could see coal development proceed elsewhere in the eastern slopes, including west of Rocky Mountain House.

Farmers, ranchers and communities as far east as Saskatchewan have a “serious reason to be concerned about this,” he said, pointing to potential water contamination of the Oldman River system from selenium or arsenic.

The Saskatchewan Green Party recently called on the federal government to intervene to protect the province’s drinking water from contamination of river headwaters in Alberta. Open pit coal mines need substantial amounts of water to wash their coal, said Urquhart.

Alberta is seeking to change a water allocation order for the Oldman River system upstream of the Oldman Reservoir to set aside more water for such purposes. Toxic levels of selenium derived from open-pit coal mining in British Columbia’s Elk Valley area have raised concerns downstream.

Nigel Bankes, chair of Natural Resources Law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary, said the Alberta government granted “an awful lot of new leases” for coal exploration in the 90 days following the cancellation of the coal policy.

He spoke as part of a recent virtual townhall hosted by the Alberta NDP. He said the leases remain in effect, with some of them involving multi-year exploration programs.

As part of her announcement Feb. 8, Savage said “all future coal development and coal lease sales on Category 2 land is to be paused indefinitely pending consultations on a modern coal policy.”

But Bankes said nothing is known about “the legislative framework for that consultation, we know very little about the objectives of it, and whether it’s actually going to result in binding directions affecting future dispositions of approvals and coal leases.”

Luff said consultations should be broadened to create new policies that would set clear guidelines for all developments ranging from oil and gas to forestry, he said.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said Savage and Kenney, along with Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, “have all talked about their desire to see more coal development in Alberta while refusing to consult with community leaders, with Indigenous leaders, with citizens.

“We know what they did do is they went behind closed doors with coal lobbyists and proponents before making the decision to rescind the policy in the first place…. I’m worried (they) are hoping this all blows over and Albertans just stop paying attention.”

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