After weeks of public backlash, the provincial government announced Monday that the 1976 coal policy would return in full force.
“An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you’ve made a mistake and to fix it,” said Energy Minister Sonya Savage.
The policy’s four land categories, which stipulated what coal mining operations could occur in certain areas, are once again in effect. The Alberta Energy Regulator has also been directed to prohibit mountaintop-removal mining in Category 2 lands, which include the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Six current coal exploration projects in Category 2 areas — four that were approved before June’s rescission, two after — will be permitted to continue, though the minister stressed exploration permits do not mean a coal mine will be approved.
All future coal exploration approvals in Category 2 lands will be paused until widespread public consultation can be completed, something the ministry says will occur in the first half of 2021.
Minister Savage said consultation would ensure the government balances the opposing views of economic development and natural preservation. A modern coal policy would also give industry investors a clear path forward.
“We want to ensure that responsible coal mining can occur in the future,” Minister Savage said. “There is a tremendous resource of metallurgical coal in Alberta, and the world is looking for steel-making coal. We want to make sure that it can proceed responsibly in the future.”
Minister Savage added the government’s intention in rescinding the 1976 policy was to update the AER’s lease approval process to coincide with other mineral resource industries like oil and gas.
“What we didn’t anticipate was the unintended effect of removing the coal categories, and Albertans felt that that removed restrictions,” she said.
“It was not our intention to do that.”
The introduction to the coal policy, however, states that “Neither exploration nor development will be permitted in certain designated areas.”
Additionally, the Facebook group Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters posted a March 20 memo from Micheal Moroskat, the director of coal and mineral development with Alberta Energy. The memo is addressed to Minister Savage and points out land categorization and leasing rules are the only part of the policy still relevant.
“Rescinding the 1976 coal policy and its land classification system is expected to increase the province’s attractiveness as an investment destination for coal,” the memo reads.
Revoking the policy, it continues, likely “will draw criticism from environmental groups and other user groups active within Alberta’s eastern slopes, particularly if the decision is made without prior public consultation.”
Livingstone-Macleod MLA Roger Reid acknowledges rescinding the policy without consultation was a mistake.
“It was a misstep on the part of the department to look at this merely as a red-tape reduction piece without understanding or expecting the impact and the distress that it caused to constituents,” Mr. Reid says.
Though reiterating that modern legislation is stringent enough to protect Alberta’s environment, Mr. Reid says the government was unaware the public was against even the drilling and road development associated with coal exploration that could potentially result from leasing agreements.
The MLA has been in contact with the Department of Energy at least once a week since November expressing the concerns of constituents, and he expects a good portion of the modernized coal policy consultation will take place in the riding.
“I’m hoping to have as much of that consultation happen in Livingstone-Macleod as I can since we’re probably the most affected by it,” he shares.
He also plans to reach out this week to coal companies invested in the riding to ascertain reactions to the reinstated policy. Mr. Reid says attracting investment is important for the riding’s economic development, which he says can and must be done properly.
“We are a unique little spot down in this corner of the province, and I want to make sure that we all get to enjoy it for generations to come,” he says.
While welcoming the government’s reinstating the policy, land user groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society expressed a need for greater transparency.
“The Government of Alberta’s process in rescinding the coal policy last year also revealed serious concerns with transparency from our provincial government and we will expect much greater transparency going forward,” an announcement on the organization’s website reads.
The group also hopes for clarification on whether the ban on mountaintop removal mining includes strip mining and open-pit mining.
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze