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9 things that haven’t changed since Alberta’s about-face on coal mining policy

The United Conservative Party was backed into a corner on its decision to open up the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to open-pit mines. But it hasn't completely abandoned its push to allow more coal projects in the province

Much ink has been spilled over the United Conservative Party government in Alberta and its quiet let’s-see-if-we-can-slip-this-one-past-them coal policy change last May. 

On a Friday afternoon.

Before the long weekend.

During a pandemic.

So when the government issued a public apology nine months later, many were surprised. As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney put it, it was a “course-correct” for his government’s earlier move.

A repentant Energy Minister Sonya Savage took to the podium on Monday to tell Albertans the government would reverse its decision on its coal policy.

“We admit we didn’t get this one right,” she said. “We’re not perfect and Albertans sure let us know that.”

The announcement was celebrated amongst the broad cross-section of Albertans —  First Nations communities, ranchers, TV stars, scientists, Paul Brandt — who came together to oppose opening up the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to the potential of open-pit coal mining.

“This mobilization is unprecedented,” Laurie Adkin, professor of political science at the University of Alberta, told The Narwhal. “I cannot think of any example in Alberta’s history where this kind of coalition has come together and on this scale.”

You could call it a coal-ition.

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But as times goes on, advocates have started to notice a few … holes in Savage’s remarks on Monday. 

As University of Calgary law professor Nigel Bankes put it this week, the recent announcement “will not restore the status quo.”

In her announcement, Savage told reporters the government would “reinstate the full 1976 coal policy.”

But, according to Bankes, that reinstatement is “hollow.”

Turns out, there are a few things the government wasn’t mentioning — and those things could still have major impacts on coal mining in the eastern slopes.

Read on for nine things that haven’t changed since the Alberta government’s big apology.

1) Nearly 200,000 hectares of new coal leases issued since the policy change are still valid

According to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, 194,281 hectares of leases have been granted since May 2020, including 186,186 hectares in what are known as Category 2 lands.

In 1976, the government offered to “buy back” leases it had issued on land where development would be restricted by the new coal policy.

At the time, the government said it “recognizes that the restrictions now imposed on exploration and development in [areas with restricted development] will affect persons holding Crown leases …  and is prepared to purchase such leases.” It was an effort to get industry to pull back from Category 2 lands.

Not this time.

Minister Savage’s announcement paused new coal leases, but did not reverse leases granted since the coal policy was rescinded last year.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced this week that the province had made a mistake in opening Category 2 lands to surface coal mining. Photo: Government of Alberta / Flickr

2) Six exploration programs already approved can still go ahead

Companies actively engaged in coal exploration programs can also continue to work in the eastern slopes. Coal exploration can involve constructing roads and drill holes. 

As Savage pointed out, some of the exploration programs began before the coal policy was rescinded and so, she said, “putting it back won’t necessarily end exploration.”

The province has not revoked the permits issued for exploration since the coal policy was rescinded, either. Those, too, can continue. 

3) The Grassy Mountain coal project is still moving through the approval process

The Grassy Mountain coal project, located in southwestern Alberta, is currently moving through a review process. It is an open-pit mine that could produce 4.5 million tonnes of processed coal per year for the next 25 years.

But that project is located on what are known as Category 4 lands, where mining is permitted. It is not affected by the government’s decision to reinstate the coal categories as part of the coal policy.

A joint federal-provincial review panel heard public comments in January. The panel is now preparing its report, to be submitted to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

John Smith and Laura Laing

Ranchers in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains were outraged by plans for surface coal mining. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal

4) New coal projects in parts of the eastern slopes are still in the works

In addition to the Grassy Mountain coal project, others — like Montem’s Tent Mountain — can still go ahead. 

Open-pit mining began on the Tent Mountain project in the 1940s and Montem is now in the process of re-starting the mine, which was suspended in 1983. It will cover 750 hectares near Coleman, Alta., and produce coal for 14 years.

As Savage pointed out, some coal project plans — including Grassy Mountain — originated well before the government rescinded the coal policy last spring. Much of the land to be included in these mine footprints is also Category 4 lands. 

Minister Savage was clear that applications for new coal mines are still A-OK in other parts of the eastern slopes.

“Exploration and mining can still go ahead on other categories of land,” she said on Monday.

Category 1 and 2 lands will have restrictions, but others will not. That leaves coal companies free to propose new exploration and new surface mines.

According to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, these areas are “highly sensitive and well-loved areas.” The group is advocating for a “new land-use plan [to be] created that offers more protections to these important landscapes.”

5) Mountaintop removal can seemingly go ahead in some areas of the eastern slopes

Minister Savage has said “no mountaintop removal will be permitted,” but in her directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator dated Feb. 8, she specified that she was referring specifically to Category 2 lands.

The directive instructs the regulator to “confirm that any proposed exploration for, or development of, coal on Category 2 lands does not involve mountaintop removal.”

That would leave other categories of land, like Category 4 where Grassy Mountain is located, still open to mountaintop-removal coal mines.

Teck Elk Valley coal mines coronavirus COVID

A mountaintop-removal coal mine in B.C.’s Elk Valley. Photo: Jayce Hawkins / The Narwhal

6) Mountain…slope removal can maybe go ahead?

Savage has emphasized “mountaintop-removal” coal mining as the form that will explicitly not be allowed, raising questions about what exactly she is referring to. 

“We’ve put an outright ban on mountaintop mining,” she said, noting photos of mountaintop mining had circulated widely online. “That will never be allowed in Alberta.”

Mountaintop-removal mining is a form of surface mining, which also includes open-pit or strip mining. Surface mining involves removing layers of soil and rock — referred to as overburden — to access minerals below. In some cases, the overburden is a mountain, in which case it’s called mountain-top removal mining. In other cases, surface mining may be called “strip mining.”

Blake Shaffer, assistant professor of economics at the University of Calgary, told The Narwhal this week that the province’s vocabulary left him wondering if “strip mining along the slopes of mountains” would be permitted. 

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society have echoed the confusion around the vocabulary, saying in a statement “we will seek more details on … what a ban on ‘mountaintop removal’ mining means, and whether or not that ban encompasses all surface mining project descriptions such as strip mining and open-pit mining.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for clarification by publication time.

7) Alberta still only receives $3.50 per hectare of land it leases to coal companies

Many Albertans were outraged to learn the Alberta government collects just $3.50 per hectare of land leases to coal companies.

Coal leases are issued for renewable 15-year terms. A company is required to fill out a simple application form, pays a $625 application fee and agrees to pay the government $3.50 per hectare annually. 

If a mining project is approved, the government collects royalties set at one per cent of the revenue from the coal produced.

8) Albertans are still mad

Cities like Lethbridge are still moving ahead with plans to ask the government to reconsider its approach to coal mining in the eastern slopes.

Lethbridge city council voted Tuesday to voice the city’s concerns with proposed coal mining in the headwaters of the Oldman River watershed to the UCP government, despite its recent announcement.

“The motion in the end received unanimous support [on council] from people with different perspectives,” Mayor of Lethbridge Chris Spearman told The Lethbridge Herald this week.

Mayor Craig Snodgrass of High River is still asking for a stop-work order. 

 “We’re still looking for the stop work order on all the existing exploration because that’s where activity started to happen just before and immediately after the rescindment of the policy,” he told Okotoks Online this week.

two ranchers on horses drinking from a stream

Ranchers fear contamination of water supplies if coal mining plans go ahead. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal

9) The government is still gung-ho about mining for metallurgical coal

When the Alberta government made its announcement about the coal policy in May, Savage said in a press release the move would “attract new investment for an important industry.”

It appears not much has changed on that front.

Metallurgical coal mines, Savage said on Monday, “can help Alberta businesses meet increasing global demand for steel and provide good-paying jobs for hard-working Albertans and, given today’s economic climate, that’s not something that can be taken lightly.”

“There is a tremendous resource of metallurgical coal in Alberta; the world is looking for steel-making coal,” she added. “We want to make sure that it can proceed responsibly in the future.”

On that she was clear. The UCP government is committed to a “path forward for investment” when it comes to coal mines. And large deposits of metallurgical coal lie under the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

In other words, stay tuned. The coal saga in Alberta isn’t over yet.

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Sharon is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. Her writing has also been published by The Walrus, Harper’s, The Tyee…

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