In the wake of mounting opposition to its sudden decision to cancel a 44-year-old policy that protected parts of the Rockies from coal development, the Alberta government now says it will reinstate that policy and consult with the public about future changes.
"What we're doing today — keeping the 1976 coal policy in place and committing to consult on a modernized policy — is what we should have done in the beginning," Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Monday.
"We didn't do it then, but we're going to do it now."
The shift in strategy comes after growing pressure from municipal councils, First Nations, environmentalists, country music stars and everyday Albertans upset by the coal-policy changes the government initially announced nine months ago.
The cancellation of the 1976 Coal Development Policy for Alberta was revealed via media release on the Friday afternoon before the May long weekend in 2020.
It came with no public consultation.
At the time, Savage described the province's move as a "common-sense" decision aimed at creating "certainty and flexibility for industry."
WATCH | 'What we're doing today ... is what we should have done in the beginning,' Savage says:
Robin Campbell, a former Alberta environment minister and current president of the Coal Association of Canada, said in May that the coal industry was "quite pleased" by the removal of the 1976 policy, which placed restrictions on mining and exploration activity across wide swaths of Alberta's Rocky Mountains and foothills.
Documents from Alberta's lobbyist registry show Campbell and other industry representatives were involved in meetings with government officials in the weeks and months leading up to the old policy's cancellation.
But on Monday, Savage said the old policy will, in effect, be reinstated and Albertans will be consulted before the government makes additional changes in the future.
Two applications for coal exploration approved after the 1976 policy was rescinded will be permitted to continue, but applications for additional exploration in former "Category 2" lands will be prohibited, pending what the government said will be "widespread consultations on a new coal policy."
The province said it won't issue any new coal leases in these areas, either, until the consultations are complete.
"An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you've made a mistake and to fix it," Savage said Monday. "And that's what we are doing."
The 1976 policy
The old policy, introduced by the Progressive Conservative government of premier Peter Lougheed in 1976, created four "categories" of land with different sets of rules when it comes to coal mining.
You can see each category in the interactive map below.
In Category 1 (red), all coal development was forbidden. This area encompassed mostly the Rocky Mountains, spanning roughly 700 kilometres from the U.S. border north to what is now Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park.
In Category 2 (blue), open-pit mines were restricted. This covered lands mostly to the east, including both mountains and foothills.
Categories 3 (green) and 4 (purple) generally trended farther east, toward the plains and saw fewer restrictions, but there are some limited sections of Category 4 land in the mountains, as well.
You can scroll and zoom on this interactive map. You can also click or tap on a coal lease (in grey) or mining licence (in orange) for more detail about it.
The biggest change, in effect, of the coal policy's cancellation came in what used to be classified as Category 2 lands.
While the old policy allowed for some "limited exploration" in these lands, provided it was "under strict control," it also asserted that open-pit mining "will not normally be considered" in these areas due to the nature of the landscape.
While it was possible for companies to apply for exemptions and pursue mining activity in Category 2 lands in the past, Campbell said it was seen as a cumbersome process, and by cancelling the policy's blanket rules across these areas, the government had removed a major hurdle to coal investment in Alberta.
"For example, around Rocky Mountain House, we have a couple of projects that were on Category 2 lands," Campbell said at the time. "This now allows them to move forward. It allows them to go out and raise money in the international community. And it allows them to start building an operation, which is going to create jobs."
Other Albertans were upset by the cancellation of the 1976 policy, however, and the way the government went about it.
Numerous groups have raised concerns about damage to iconic landscapes and potential environmental harm, including the risk of streams and rivers being contaminated with selenium as a result of mining activity.
A series of coal mines in British Columbia, just west of Crowsnest Pass, about 230 km south of Calgary, have leached selenium into waterways for years, setting off disputes with U.S. officials downstream and decimating rare fish populations.
WATCH | More voices join calls to rethink new direction on coal:
In an interview last week, Savage said she had heard people's concerns.
"I'm very, very aware of the concerns and the growing concerns and we will be addressing it," she said Thursday. "There was never any intention when the coal policy was rescinded to change any of the restrictions or any of the protections in the eastern slopes [of the Rocky Mountains]."
Savage went on: "The concept of blowing the tops off the mountains, that will not happen."
On Monday, Savage said the details of the consultation process will be announced "in the weeks ahead."
"It will be a thorough process so that we have time to hear from Albertans. I'm sure that we're going to hear from a lot of them on what the future of coal looks like."
What will and won't be affected
Lisa Sygutek, a municipal councillor in Crowsnest Pass who has been supportive of new coal mines opening in the area because of the jobs they would create, said she was pleased to hear what Savage had to say on Monday.
"I think what they were doing with the repeal of the policy — to update it — was the right thing do," Sygutek said.
"However, the way they went about it obviously did not resonate with the public. So it's nice to see they've admitted they made a mistake and they're going to revisit the issue."
Sygutek noted the government's about-face has "very little bearing" on what's happening with two open-pit mines proposed in the Crowsnest Pass area that are nearest to receiving approval from regulators: Riversdale Resources' Grassy Mountain project and Montem Resources' Tent Mountain project.
Both projects would see mining resume on previously mined sites that were abandoned decades ago. Both sites sit on relatively rare chunks of former Category 4 land in the Rocky Mountains, which weren't subject to the same restrictions under the old coal policy.
Other companies have been doing exploratory work in other parts of the mountains near Crowsnest Pass, however, they were classified as Category 2 under the old policy.
This includes Atrum Coal's Isolation South project. The Australian company was granted a permit by the Alberta Energy Regulator in September to drill exploratory holes as deep as 400 metres into mountainsides in an area about 35 kilometres north of Blairmore.
The other project is not too far away. Cabin Ridge Project Limited, a privately-owned Alberta company, was granted a deep-drilling permit, also in September, on its leaseholds about 50 kilometres north of Coleman.
No comment from industry association
Campbell, the president of the Coal Association of Canada, declined to comment on Monday's announcement.
"Mr. Campbell will not be making any comments until he understands the details of todays announcement more thoroughly," the association said in an email.
Katie Morrison with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society welcomed Monday's announcement as a partial victory for critics of the government's decision to rescind the 1976 policy.
"Credit to the tens of thousands of Albertans who have been speaking out on this," she said.
"I think everyone should be really proud of themselves for causing this backtracking on the coal policy."
Still, she said there are many details yet to come in terms of the actual consultation process, what the government decides after that and what happens with coal exploration projects and mining proposals that remain in the works.
"I think that we should be asking and continuing to push that all exploration activities are stopped across the eastern slopes — including Category 2 and [Category] 4 lands — until we have a new, stronger policy or land-use plan in place," she said.
Political calculations and implications
Keith Brownsey, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the UCP government is doing damage control after taking hits on several fronts recently.
He said those include the spate of MLAs and government staff who vacationed internationally in spite of public-health advice, as well as the proposed removal of 164 sites from the provincial parks system — another plan the government recently backtracked on after a sustained public outcry.
The cancellation of the 1976 coal policy, in particular, was hurting the government in some rural areas where it can ill afford to lose support, Brownsey said.
"The coal issue really hit home for the UCP," he said. "It's something their supporters didn't like. It makes them vulnerable."
A recent poll by ThinkHQ found 69 per cent of Albertans disapproved of the government's coal policy changes. The poll suggested the strongest opposition was coming from central Alberta, home to a large chunk of former Category 2 land.
The poll was conducted with 1,140 Albertans between Feb. 2 and Feb. 6, via an online research panel weighted according to Statistics Canada data to reflect the gender, age and region of Alberta, by population.
The margin of error for a comparable random sample of this size would be plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The accuracy of sub-samples, such as regional results, would be lower.