Critics question Alta. gov’t coal consultation

Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association, said the terms of reference for the consultation were posted to a provincial government website with no official announcement or news conference, and do not mention land or water use. | Mike Sturk photo

The roundabout way the terms of reference for upcoming public consultations for a new coal policy for Alberta have come to light is heightening the fears of people opposed to open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes.

“I mean, how can you trust this government when this is their approach to the consultation?” said Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.

He said the terms of reference, which were posted to a provincial government website with no official announcement or news conference, do not mention land or water use.

Urquhart said these are key issues for Albertans such as ranchers and farmers who fear open-pit coal mining will harm their livelihoods.

The four-page document instead contains questions such as “what is Albertans’ understanding of the coal policy?” as well as “under what conditions would Albertans support coal development?”

It states that the mandate of the committee “will only focus on matters related to coal that are under the administration of the Minister of Energy,” who is Sonya Savage.

It does not mention other ministries such as Alberta Environment and Parks – in fact, it doesn’t mention the environment at all – and it will only be able to look at matters under legislation such as the Responsible Energy Development Act, the Coal Conservation Act, and the Mines and Minerals Act.

It said the committee will conduct public engagement between March 29 and Sept. 15, “having due regard for agricultural stakeholders’ busy periods and Indigenous communities’ scheduled ceremonies.”

It added the committee’s final report on the engagement is to be submitted Oct. 15 “summarizing the perspectives and advice of Albertans about the management of coal resources.”

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

Urquhart said the terms of reference, which are dated March 29 in the document, did not draw anyone’s attention until April 15 and do not seem to have been previously available online. “I would have bet my life they weren’t there at the end of March.”

During a news conference March 29, Savage reassured Albertans about provincial government’s intentions. “Public engagement is about having an open conversation, and that dialogue starts today.”

She announced the provincial government had appointed what it called an independent external committee to lead what it described as 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, it said.

“Further details about the engagement process will be designed and shared by the committee following the survey closing.”

After public opposition ranging from producers to Canadian entertainers such as Corb Lund, Jann Arden and k.d. lang, Savage announced Feb. 8 the provincial government was fully reinstating a 45-year-old coal policy 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 decision raised fears of toxic levels of contaminants such as selenium entering the Oldman River system, potentially affecting everyone from ranchers and farmers to communities across much of Alberta.

A record-breaking fine of $60 million was assessed March 26 against Teck Coal, a subsidiary of Teck Resources. The company pleaded guilty under the federal Fisheries Act after releasing selenium and calcite into the Elk and Fording rivers in British Columbia in 2012.

The area is close to portions of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes where open-pit coal mining has either been proposed or is under exploration.

The Alberta government’s handling of an issue that has aroused growing opposition in many people in the province has perplexed Urquhart from the start.

“I’ve never been able to understand anything they’ve done with this, and why they are so insistent on hanging on to this is beyond me. I have no rational explanation for why they’re doing the things they do.”

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

The bill was unexpectedly given unanimous consent April 13 by a committee that decides which private members bills can proceed to the legislature, making it the first such bill by the opposition to survive this step since the governing United Conservative Party (UCP) came to power in 2019.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley had said changes to the rules by the UCP allowed such bills to be killed by the committee.

However, the bill likely won’t be debated before the end of the current sitting of the legislature due to its place on the schedule below other proposed legislation, meaning it will be quietly dropped.

During an online townhall on April 13, Notley said because of her long experience as an opposition MLA first elected in 2008, she was prone to a “very high level of cynicism.

“And so, this cynicism compels me to think that the reason the bill was agreed to is not because (the UCP) truly want to debate it, but rather because they don’t want to be caught voting it down.”

Despite such concerns, Notley hoped to get the bill moved up in the schedule on April 19.

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