Survey rejects coal mining on Eastern Slopes

More than 90 percent of respondents felt certain areas should be restricted, making suggestions that ranged from the Rockies to areas near watersheds or in close proximity to farms. | Mike Sturk photo

Albertans have overwhelmingly indicated in an online survey that areas such as the province’s Rocky Mountains and foothills are not appropriate for coal exploration and development.

More than 90 percent of respondents felt certain areas should be restricted, making suggestions that ranged from the Rockies to areas near watersheds or in close proximity to farms.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage has said coal development is an important part of Western Canada’s economy, particularly for rural communities.

However, respondents ranked the economic impacts of such development as the least important of eight issues, with 64 percent indicating it was not important at all. The most important issue was environmental impacts, said a provincial statement.

“More than 85 percent indicated they were not at all confident that coal exploration/development in Alberta is regulated to ensure it is safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible.”

It is hard to remember a time when there has been such disbelief in the economic benefits of a provincial policy, said Ian Urquhart, conservation director of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“I think this is a stunning rebuke to those who have been thinking that promoting coal is a political winner for the UCP (United Conservative Party) government.”

The three-week survey ended April 19, attracting nearly 25,000 people. Although it was an open-access poll and respondents were not randomly selected, Urquhart said the results mirror an earlier survey that was representative and scientific.

ThinkHQ announced Feb. 8 that its survey showed the expansion of coal mining was “decidedly unpopular with voters,” with more than 75 percent of Albertans aware of the issue.

It found nearly seven out of 10 people within this group were opposed to expanded coal development within formerly protected areas of the province.

The initial results of the provincial government’s online survey were quietly released on May 17, said Alberta NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt.

He spoke during an online news conference May 18, the same day the International Energy Agency outlined what it will take for the world’s nations to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

It said they will have to immediately stop approving things such as new oil and gas fields or coal mines to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Proposed coal development in Alberta would involve open-pit mining for metallurgical coal for export, particularly to Asia.

Seventy percent of respondents to the provincial survey felt that management of coal resources had a major impact on them.

“In particular, respondents were concerned about the impacts on water, air, environment, health, wildlife, and their ability to enjoy outdoor activities,” said Schmidt. “They also expressed concern about liability for cleanup and contamination, and the impact of this on future generations.”

A record-breaking fine of $60 million was assessed March 26 against Teck Coal after it released selenium and calcite into rivers in British Columbia in 2012.

Open-pit coal mines could potentially be developed in adjacent areas of the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and foothills.

It has sparked fears of toxic levels of selenium entering watersheds such as the Old Man River system, affecting everyone from farmers and ranchers to communities across much of the province.

Scientists at the University of Alberta warned MLAs in a letter April 16 “there is no reliable method to stop leaching of hazardous waste produced by surface coal mining into groundwater where, inevitably, it will pollute precious watersheds we all depend on that are already under severe stress.”

The release of the initial results of the survey May 17 came shortly before the first anniversary of the provincial government’s announcement May 22, 2020, it was rescinding Alberta’s coal policy.

The decision eased restrictions limiting open-pit coal mines in much of the Eastern Slopes, sparking widespread opposition. As a result, Savage announced Feb. 8 she was reinstating the policy.

She announced April 23 she was also halting coal exploration in Category 2 lands under the policy. Her decision followed criticism over what was seen as the narrow scope of the terms of reference for an independent committee that is gathering input from Albertans about coal development.

“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.

As part of a letter May 13 resigning as UCP caucus chair, MLA Todd Loewen called on Jason Kenney to step down as Alberta’s premier.

One of the reasons given by Loewen was that the actions of Kenney’s government on the Eastern Slopes “did not align with the expectations and values of Albertans.” As a result, Loewen was expelled from the UCP.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee will be engaging virtually with Albertans as a first step. For more information, visit https://your.alberta.ca/coal-policy-committee.

Contact doug.ferguson@producer.com

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