Critics Skeptical as Alberta Reverses Course on Open-pit Coal Mines

February 10, 2021

After months of ignoring a grassroots protest movement opposing plans to allow open-pit coal mining in Alberta’s Rockies, Energy Minister Sonya Savage said today the provincial government made a mistake and is now prepared to fix it.

In a brief news conference, Savage said the province would reinstate the 1976 Coal Policy, which prohibited open-pit mining on 1.5 million hectares of “Category 2” lands in the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

In addition, Savage said she had instructed the Alberta Energy Regulator that “no mountain top removal will be permitted” in the province and that all future coal exploration on the Category 2 lands will be paused indefinitely until public consultation is held.

Coal exploration by Australian miners on six existing leases in the foothills will not be paused.

Savage’s reinstatement of the Coal Policy directly contradicts statements from Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday that the Coal Policy was a “dead letter” and obsolete.

The highly unpopular premier also characterized opponents of coal mining as urban snobs even though the majority of the opposition has come from his party’s angry base: ranchers, farmers, landowners and rural towns and municipalities.

The government’s abrupt change of course follows weeks of protests from hundreds of thousands of Albertans from all walks of life and all political parties.

They raised concerns about water security, selenium pollution (a legacy of open-pit coal mines), and the future of the province’s iconic eastern slopes.

Landowner and conservation groups greeted today’s announcement with skepticism.

“I’d call my response very guarded,” said Renie Blades, a third-generation rancher in Alberta’s foothills.

“It was good that the government admitted that they had made a mistake…. But Minister Savage is not Jason Kenney either. He could still turn the whole thing on its ear.”

Together with her husband Mac and another ranching family in the foothills, Blades took the government to court this year asking for a judicial review of the government’s decision to rescind the Coal Policy.

The request for a review, which will be ruled on next month, argues that the Kenney government broke the law by abolishing the Coal Policy without public consultation.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon and Kenney “are still pretty ignorant about water and the eastern slopes,” said Blades. “We don’t trust any of them, and we’ll look at this and see what actually happens.”

She said the judicial review will continue because “we have asked for all kinds of information about the rescission of the Coal Policy and all the deals the government made with Australian coal miners behind the scenes.”

Last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Kenney government quietly revoked the province’s 44-year-old Coal Policy in a bid to kickstart a metallurgical coal boom in the Rockies, largely driven by Australian coal companies.

The policy stipulated where coal leasing and mining could take place in the Rockies with four different land categories. In Category 1, all coal development was forbidden. In Category 2, open-pit mines were banned. Categories 3 and 4, generally outside the mountains, had fewer restrictions.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Foreign mining companies had long objected to the ban on open-pit or surface mining in Category 2 lands, which also protected the province’s most critical watersheds.

Australian coal mining corporations, which had lobbied for the abolition of the Coal Policy, praised the Kenney government when their wish was granted last year.

“We welcome the decision of the Alberta government to repeal the now heavily outdated 1976 Coal Policy,” said Andrew Caruso, CEO of Atrum Coal. “It is a big step forward for the targeted progression and future development of our flagship Elan hard-coking coal project.”

John Lawson, a third-generation rancher in Pincher Creek and a member of the Livingstone Landowners Group, also expressed strong reservations about the government’s about face.

“This is a tactical retreat by a pro-coal government, and it is not a rebirth.”

He said that what Albertans really want now is a clear declaration from the government that says no open-pit or strip mining anywhere in the eastern slopes, due to scarce water supplies and the risks of selenium pollution.

He noted that Savage’s announcement does not affect mines proposed by Australian corporations on Category 4 lands in the Crowsnest Pass, which will affect water security in the Oldman River basin.

“The devil is in the details. Reinstating the Coal Policy alone is not the answer,” added Lawson.

David Luff, a former civil servant who helped create the Coal Policy, said the government had taken a huge step by admitting it had made a mistake.

But it was only a first step.

“But for Minister Savage to come and make the statements she made is a public rebuke of both the premier and Environment Minister Jason Nixon,” Luff said. “Her credibility and integrity is now on the line.”

Luff wants to see more details from the government about whether the promised ban on “mountain top removal” covers all surface mining. That would mean the proposed Grassy Mountain project in the Crowsnest Pass shouldn’t proceed.

And he wants a review of six exploratory permits on coal leases in the Oldman River basin where there isn’t enough water to even support one mine.

“All exploration in the Oldman River basin should be stopped pending a full public review,” said Luff.

Ian Urquhart, conservation director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, said he was surprised by the government’s announcement.

“I didn’t expect this at all…. But I’m skeptical the devil is still in the details.”

Urquhart also said more clarity is needed about the minister’s directive banning “mountain top removal.” Are the Aries and Blackstone open-pit mines west of Rocky Mountain House classified as mountain top removal, he asked?

He also doubts the Kenney’s government ability to hold fair public consultations given its dismal record with the inquiry into alleged foreign funding of “anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” Its deadline has now been extended three times.

In addition to rescinding the Coal Policy, the Kenney government has sent letters of support to Australian mining companies offering them less red tape and lower corporate taxes.

As well, it has promised speedy permitting and is in the process of changing water allocation orders in southern Alberta to benefit Australian coal miners.

Meanwhile the Kenney government has staffed the Alberta Energy Regulator, which will review each coal mining projects with people whose pasts are aligned with resource extracting corporations.

The government’s cozy relationship with Australian coal miners who knew months before Albertans that the Coal Policy was being rescinded has alarmed and outraged rural Albertans.

Landowners, farmers and ranchers are all concerned that any coal mining in the eastern slopes will have a direct impact on water quality and water quantity downstream.  [Tyee]


Teaser photo credit: Coal mine Lethbridge Alberta Author: Jason Woodhead, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coal_mine_Lethbridge_Alberta_(41420919734).jpg

Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists.

Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.

Tags: Canadian energy policy, coal mining, coal mining environmental damage, controlling water supplies