Coal development in Alberta-Over the past few weeks, there has been a groundswell of concern raised in Alberta about open-pit coal mining projects along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. It is clear people care deeply about this region, and rightly so. In a recent paper, researchers identified several “hotspot” areas that provide freshwater, recreation, and carbon storage. Very few places in Canada offer all these benefits in one place. One of the paper’s authors stated, “the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies is one of the most important places across the whole country for its combination of freshwater, carbon storage, and recreation — not to mention important wildlife habitat”. Yet much of the Eastern Slopes is a working landscape with resource extraction, recreation, and agriculture already occurring, sometimes exceeding established thresholds for the persistence of sensitive species. And although coal mining has and does occur in a few places along the Eastern Slopes, there appears to be a renewed interest in growing this industry.
When we talk about coal, there are two main types: thermal coal and metallurgical coal. Alberta is actually on track to phase out the use of thermal coal in power generation. However, there is still an export market for metallurgical coal – used in steel making. In fact, the export of metallurgical coal is a big part of British Columbia’s economy. But there is a cost. For example, selenium pollution from coal mines in British Columbia’s Elk Valley is harming fish, contaminating local drinking water wells, and even drawing the ire of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who are now dealing with this contaminated water crossing into the U.S.
So, what’s going on in Alberta? Last spring, before the May long weekend, Alberta Energy announced it would rescind the 1976 Coal Policy, calling it outdated and saying that it would be “replaced by modern regulatory processes, integrated planning, and land use policies”. Later statements by Alberta Environment and Parks minister Jason Nixon state that the removal of the policy, “in no way weakened or reversed environmental standards and protections”. However, the Coal Policy restricted the issuance of coal leases in Category 2 and 3 lands. (A key component of the Coal Policy was categorizing lands based on a variety of environmental, social, and economic considerations. For example, Category 1 lands had the highest level of protection, followed by Category 2, and so forth). So, immediately after the Policy’s rescission, all proponents who had coal lease applications that were previously held in the application stage were offered the first right of refusal for the applications they held. The Canadian Press reports that 1.4 million hectares of Crown coal rights have been sold across Alberta since the Coal Policy was rescinded. This map, from an Oldman Watershed Council blog post, shows the extent of the leases and the coal category they would previously have fallen under.
Last spring, TUC wrote to AEP minister Jason Nixon stating our concern for the policy rescission. The Coal Policy had been implemented following years of public consultation and with consideration to achieving a balance between environmental protection and economic development. One of our key concerns today is what the absence of the Coal Policy means for Category 2 lands, which is a broad swath of the Eastern Slopes where, under the Coal Policy, limited exploration would be permitted and surface (open-pit) coal mining would not normally be considered.
Meanwhile, there are mines in various stages of planning in the Crowsnest Pass region of Alberta. The Grassy Mountain Coal Project is the furthest along in the regulatory process, having just completed the public hearing as part of a federal-provincial Joint Review process. This project has been under review for several years. Since the Grassy Mountain site is located on former Category 4 lands, the Coal Policy was irrelevant for this specific project. TUC participated in the hearing voicing our opposition to the project based on the risks to water quality, aquatic habitat, and fish communities, particularly the threatened population of Westslope Cutthroat Trout remaining in Gold Creek. The Joint Review Panel has until June 2021 to submit their report and recommendations to the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change and the minister will have until September to make a decision on whether to approve, not approve, or approve the project with conditions. Montem Resources is working towards approvals for several projects including the Tent Mountain Mine, which is also within former Category 4 lands. Both the Grassy Mountain and Tent Mountain projects would be located on former mine sites that were never completely reclaimed. However, both Montem Resources and Atrum Coal hold leases and are considering projects on former Category 2 lands in the headwaters region of the Oldman River. Some projects have begun active exploration which includes road building (including stream crossings) and drilling sites. Further north, Valory Resources reported to investors that they expect to start mining their Blackstone Project southwest of Rocky Mountain House within two years and Ram River Coal has its eyes on the Ram River region, also in the upper North Saskatchewan basin.
While the government has ensured Albertans that removing the Coal Policy would not open the Eastern Slopes to strip mining, they were very clear that the intent of removing the Coal Policy was to “attract new investment for an important industry”. Although the Coal Policy was not an environmental policy per se, it did function as such – there were protections to sensitive lands afforded by the policy.
As mining companies decide to pursue mining activities, each project will be evaluated by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER); if they are of a certain size a federal review will also be triggered. Provincial government officials assure us that nothing has changed with respect to how projects will be evaluated. While this is true, TUC does not believe the “modern regulatory process” is equipped to protect the public interest. While we play catch up on the landscape, restoring degraded streams from decades of poor land use management, the damage is accelerating.
TUC staff recently met with AEP Minister Jason Nixon to discuss these concerns. So what can you do?
We always encourage folks to educate themselves on the issue and share their thoughts and concerns with their elected officials. TUC believes a collaborative approach will realize the most significant positive gains on the landscape. Contact your MLA or MP or the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, the provincial Minister of Environment, Jason Nixon, the provincial Minister of Energy, Sonya Savage, or the premier, Jason Kenney.