Here at Bushwhackers, we are very concerned about the potential Coal developments that are currently slated for the eastern slopes of the Alberta Rockies. This issue has been ever-evolving, with new developments, announcements, and information constantly bombarding the public making it difficult to follow along. So, I thought I would use this first post of 2021 to summarize the past year as it relates to coal development in Alberta, and provide clarity on where we are currently at.
I am firmly opposed to any new coal developments in the eastern slopes and substantially disappointed in the way the Alberta government has handled the situation. Click here to read my last post regarding this issue. With that being said, I also acknowledge there may be some middle ground here; the Grassy mountain project approval process has been ongoing since 2013, has the support of (some) of the local community, and also sits on category 4 lands (meaning this mine would have been available for development even before the AB government rescinded the 45 year old Coal policy- more on this later). So while I don’t support this mine, if it were ONLY this mine that were built, I think the impacts could be managed and it may help to revive a struggling Crowsnest Pass economy.
But what we are actually seeing is one of the most popular recreation areas in the province being surrounded by mining leases on all sides, and a government hell-bent on ensuring these mines get off the ground even if that means lying and deceiving Albertans. Today brought with it a positive announcement- we will get to that at the end of the post.
So lets start off by taking a look at what we are up against- below is a map of the current mining leases in the popular fishing areas in the headwaters of the Oldman River. Many of you will know how excellent the fly-fishing is on the Oldman river near the Oldman river North Rec site (in green below). Its startling to think what the landscape could look like in 30 years if even half of these projects move forward.
Montem Resources also has a very interesting video about their planned projects that provides a lot of insight into the landscape and the alterations that could be forthcoming if their projects are allowed to continue. It gives a good overview of theirs and other projects. I highly recommend watching it as it will give you more context for the rest of the article.
On June 1st, 2020: Alberta UCP Government Rescinds 1976 Coal Policy
The 1976 Coal policy was enacted by Peter Lougheed’s conservative government. Under this policy, open-pit coal mining was prohibited in category 1 and category 2 lands. This encompassed almost all of the eastern slopes. When they rescinded this policy, the government flouted “greater flexibility for industry” and “continued protection for sensitive areas” while also “promoting foreign investment”. What wasn’t immediately clear, however, was that rescinding this policy meant that category 2 areas that were previously protected under the 1976 Coal policy were now available to open-pit coal mining.
Here is the thing that is important about category 2 lands. Even though mining was severely limited in these areas under the old policy, they were still available to be leased for coal. Why would a company lease an area they wouldn’t be able to mine? First, they are able to apply for an exemption (a cumbersome process that is not preferred by most companies… there is however precedence for this. In 2016 the NDP government granted an exemption to the Ram River Aries project, a 20,000 Ha mine. In many ways this opened the door for other companies to do the same). Secondly, these leases were subject to becoming available if the government were to…. change to the coal policy. So essentially, while open-pit mining was not allowed in these areas, they were covered by leases by several Australian companies, just waiting for the rules to change.
So while rescinding the coal policy didn’t ‘open up’ the land to more coal leases, it allowed the existing leaseholders to move forward into the regulatory phase and apply successfully for exploration permits. This is very important to understanding where we are currently at. It was a clever bit of deception performed by the government that allowed these companies to sneak around the red tape and get into the exploration phase while the government works on changing the coal policy.
Government ‘Listens’ to Albertans
As the public input phase of the review process for the Grassy mountain mine came to a close, Albertans began to become aware of the recent coal developments and began to make their voices heard. There was public outcry and many Albertans made it loud and clear that they did not support coal mining in the eastern slopes. This included statements made by country stars Corb Lund and Paul Brandt who came out against the mines.
In response to the outcry, the government released a statement on January 18th, 2021 claiming to be “listening to the concerns of Albertans.” They announced that they would be cancelling 11 coal leases that were granted in December. It came with impressive headlines….. “Government cancels mine leases”…. “Government listens to Albertans”… I saw these posts on the news and on my social feeds. It sounded like a win. But then I decided to look into it more and the truth of the matter became appallingly clear- this was nothing but a PR stunt by the government intended to appease Albertans and take the mounting pressure off – and it worked.
So, lets put this announcement into perspective. The government had cancelled 11 coal leases. These leases only totaled 1800 Ha, translating to less than 0.04 % of the category 2 land leases (420,000 Ha), and 0.02 % of the total coal leases in the province (840,000 Ha). 0.02% ! Not even 1%. Not even half of 1%. It was an insult to Albertans- but it did successfully trick many Albertans into thinking the eastern slopes were protected from coal mining.
And the final sentence of this announcement was the most significant. As always, the devil is in the details.
“This decision has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review.”– Sonya Savage, Minister of Energy
And since the rescinding of the coal policy, many of those leases on category 2 lands had entered the regulatory review process and therefore were unaffected by the announcement. This announcement made no impact on the Grassy Mountain Project, the Tent Mountain project, the Chinook project, or any of the other projects in the Oldman area or the Bighorn that Albertans are concerned about. The cancelled leases were simply tiny add-ons to larger projects.
The map of the Livingstone Range below puts this into perspective. The grey areas are coal leases unaffected by the announcement. The black areas represent the 11 leases that were cancelled.
Government re-instates the 1976 Coal Policy
On February 8th, 2021, the government announced that they would be re-instating the 1976 Coal policy and pause all future sales on category 2 lands. Another step in the right direction. But the announcement also stated that current exploration on category 2 lands would continue- including the 2 projects that were approved for exploration while the policy was not in place. This policy would be in place while a new “modern” policy was developed taking into account consultation from Albertans. Again, good news, however, what form would this consultation take?
Government “Consults” with Albertans
On March 29th, 2020, Minister Savage appointed an independent committee to conduct public engagement regarding a new “modern” coal policy. The committee was made up of 5 members. A survey was made available to the public to give feedback regarding the future of coal development in Alberta. This was another step in the right direction, however, many Albertans (myself included) were very disappointed in the survey.
The survey was based around coal and coal regulations. Nowhere in the survey was there any mention of issues relating to water quality, species-at-risk, First Nations treaty rights, or cumulative effects. It was centered around coal and did not leave any real room to provide feedback about these larger issues that Albertans are most concerned about.
Further, exploration in category 2 lands was continuing while this ‘consultation’ was happening. Albertans felt the consultation could not occur in good faith while exploration was still occurring. It appeared to many Albertans that the government had already made up their minds, and that the consultation was just more lip-service. People started to demand that exploration in category 2 land be halted in order for the consultation to move forward.
But alas, there is good news!!! The press release actually happened today, as I am writing this. It appears, finally, after a full year of Albertans making it clear that this was not OK, they have finally listened to the sentiment of Albertans- that consultation can not occur in good faith while exploration continues.
BREAKING NEWS: Today, the government announced that all exploration on category 2 lands will be halted during consultation with Albertans.
And its about time. It seems as though after a full year, we are finally back to where all of this SHOULD have started in the first place- consultation with Albertans about the future of coal development in our province. Based on the overwhelming sentiment of Albertans, the committee recommended to the minister that all exploration be halted during consultation to ensure the consultation occurred in good faith. The minister accepted this recommendation. This is a HUGE first step and shows that the committee may actually be working for Albertans and not for the government.
So… where does that leave us?
The committee has promised more consultation as well as consultation regarding larger issues including water quality. If this is an issue that is important to you, it is absolutely essential you participate and make your voices heard! Stay tuned for updates from the committee.
However, the projects that sit on category 4 lands are still moving forward. This includes the Grassy Mountain Project and the Tent Mountain Project. We need to continue to fight- write letters to you MLA, participate in feedback, and support groups that are fighting to protect these areas. The Tent mountain project needs to be stopped- montem has stated that the profits from this project will be used to fund their other project, the Chinook project. It currently just misses the threshold to trigger a federal impact assessment. We need to pressure the federal government to get involved and put this project through the federal impact assessment process, which will consider cumulative effects.
Below are a list of links and resources to help get involved and stay informed!! Together, we can ensure Albertas wilderness remains FOR ALBERTANS. Thanks for reading, please comment with your thoughts I’d love to have a discussion!
Click here to search up your local MLA
Click here to search up your local MP