Province pauses future coal leases, but those who oppose government’s new approach insist eastern slopes still at risk
Plans for open-pit coal mining that include a proposed conveyor belt stretching 36 kilometres will have a profound impact on the livelihoods of nearby Alberta ranchers if approved, a court hearing was told last week.
The hearing into whether a judicial review should be held into an Alberta government decision to rescind the province’s longstanding coal policy came the same week the government announced a pause of future coal leases.
The conveyor belt was mentioned in an investor presentation by Atrum Coal and will cut through the grazing lease of Mac Blades of the Rocking P Ranch near Nanton, Alta., said lawyer Richard Harrison. Such development will also impact John Smith and wife Laura Laing of the nearby Plateau Cattle Co., he said.
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“It will affect every single aspect of their ability to raise the cattle that they have been raising and that their parents have been raising — and that their grandparents, in the case of Mr. Blades, have been raising — and that long-standing connection to the land.”
Along with Smith and Laing, Blades is seeking a judicial review of a provincial decision last year rescinding a 44-year-old coal policy limiting open-pit mining in much of the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.
A virtual hearing into the request was held Jan. 19-20 before Justice Richard Neufeld of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. Harrison told the court he could not think of a project with a more detrimental impact on grazing leases than an open-pit coal mine.
The investor presentation involved the Elan Scoping Study April 2020 by Atrum Coal. The company has about 330 sq. kilometres of holdings, or 81,545 acres, near the headwaters and tributaries of the Oldman River, which provides water for ranches, irrigated farms and communities in much of Alberta.
Due to the fact open-pit coal mines require water for their operations, the provincial government is in the initial stages of seeking to allocate more water above the Oldman reservoir for industrial uses.
The investor presentation outlined the potential development of a large open-pit coal mine in Atrum’s Isolation South area, along with three satellite pits in Elan South. Water pollution from toxic levels of selenium derived from open-pit coal mining has been a concern in British Columbia’s nearby Elk Valley area.
Proposed infrastructure in Isolation South near the Rocking P Ranch is to include a loading area for a 36 km conveyor belt, said Harrison. He added the site is near the confluence of the Oldman and Livingstone rivers, which Blades relies on to water his cattle.
Land used by the Rocking P and Plateau Cattle Co. was part of Category 2 lands under the coal policy. Its cancellation opened up about 3.7 million acres of such land on the eastern slopes to potential surface coal development.
Opposition to the decision has ranged from two online petitions totalling more than 100,000 signatures to the town council of High River, Alta., which asked for reinstatement of the policy.
Canadian country musicians including Corb Lund, Paul Brandt and Terri Clark have also expressed their opposition. They were joined by singer-entertainers k.d. lang and Jann Arden.
Due to such pressure, provincial Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced Jan. 18 she was pausing future coal lease sales in former Category 2 lands. She also cancelled 11 coal leases from an auction in December totalling about 4,500 acres in the Crowsnest Pass area, which has been estimated to be only a small fraction of the ex-Category 2 lands that remain under lease.
The announcement Jan. 18 “has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review,” said Savage in a statement. Coal development remains an important part of Western Canada’s economy, particularly for rural communities, she added.
Although Harrison agreed the coal policy was more of a yellow light than a full-scale stop to open-pit coal mining, he said Blades, Smith and Laing want the court to reinstate the policy and its protections. They also want to win a declaration requiring a level of public input reflective of Savage’s legal obligations, something Harrison said never happened.
But the provincial government is seeking to dismiss the application for judicial review. The case is “a classic example of what happens when courts are turned into political arenas,” said Melissa Burkett, a lawyer for the provincial government.
It is not about an unlawful exercise of power, but is instead about the government’s rightful ability to “create and dictate policy based on economic, social, political and other relevant factors,” she said.
The decision rescinding the coal policy will “neither cause nor prevent the development of any coal mining” because Albertans are still protected by a robust regulatory framework, including scrutiny from the Alberta Energy Regulator, she said.
Neufeld said Jan. 20 he hoped to decide within the next two months whether to hold a judicial review.