The Alberta government is asking for public participation after announcing March 29 it was creating an independent committee that will spearhead consultation on a new coal policy.
Facing immense public backlash over proposed open-pit coal mining projects in the Rocky Mountains, the government reversed its decision to rescind the 1976 coal policy and committed to extensive public consultation before considering further expansion of Alberta’s coal industry.
The committee will be chaired by Ron Wallace, an expert in regulatory policies, and includes three locals: Crowsnest Pass resident Fred Bradley, Piikani Nation member Eric North Peigan, and Bill Trafford, who owns a home in the Porcupine Hills. Natalie Charlton, executive director of the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce, is the fifth committee member.
Currently acting as president of the Livingstone Landowners Group, Mr. Trafford acknowledges the organization has been a vocal opponent of the proposed coal mine at Grassy Mountain, which is permitted under the province’s current coal policy.
Opposition to one project, points out Mr. Trafford, does not preclude supporting industrial growth in Alberta.
“I’m absolutely a proponent of Alberta growing and prospering, and I’ve spent my whole life working on that,” he says. “Livingstone Landowners has never been against development — it’s responsible development that’s important. I’m hoping that’s what comes through, is can we do this responsibly? That’s really the question.”
In comparison, Mr. Bradley participated in the Grassy Mountain hearing in favour of the project, which he emphasized could only succeed as long as strict environmental regulations were adhered to.
Having served as an MLA for many years and as environment minister under Peter Lougheed in 1982, Mr. Bradley says he is looking forward to using his previous experience with government in engaging with the public.
“Moving forward, I bring a vast amount of experience in terms of my community and former responsibilities and understanding resource development issues and environmental protection,” he says.
Overall, committee members are looking forward to the opportunity to engage with the public on an important topic for the province’s future and hope to provide useful recommendations to the government in the creation of a new coal policy.
“I’m really looking forward to hearing what Albertans think,” says Mr. Trafford. “It’s not about my opinion — it’s about Albertans’ opinions and Albertans’ beliefs. I’m really looking forward to that.”
“This is a very important policy consideration,” adds Mr. Bradley. “It’s an opportunity to hear from Albertans and engage with them on this very important issue.”
Efforts to reach Mr. Plain Eagle for comment were unsuccessful.
Creating the committee, said Energy Minister Sonya Savage, was the first step in showing Albertans their government was listening.
“Albertans have made it clear they want a say in where and how coal is developed in our province. By establishing an independent committee, everyone across the province will have their voices heard during this engagement process,” she said during the press conference.
“This is an essential step in ensuring a new modern coal policy is developed by Albertans for Albertans.”
The committee will be given full rein in determining how to best seek public input. Currently, an online survey is open on the government’s website for initial feedback. The survey results will help guide the committee’s next steps for public engagement.
Minister Savage also indicated the government was collaborating directly with indigenous communities, with talks set to begin that same day.
The committee has been allocated $500,000 to support its actions. A final report on the committee’s findings and recommendations will be due to Minister Savage on Nov. 15.
Despite the committee’s creation, critics of the government feel the commitment to public consultation is only skin-deep, with the makeup of the committee showing a pro-coal bias.
“Obviously they have some outcome in mind that they’re not saying out loud, and they’re waiting to see if the panel’s advice agrees with what they want to see,” said Marlin Schmidt, NDP critic for environment and parks.
Mr. Schmidt added that the public had been clear that any coal development in the Rocky Mountains was unwelcome and the best way to protect them was through legislation. As a result, a private member’s bill is set to go before the legislature that would completely ban coal mining in Category 1 and 2 lands.
The bill would also temporarily prohibit coal mining in Alberta until the government legislates regional land-use plans.
The chairman for the newly formed committee, however, emphasized that the committee’s makeup ensured all perspectives would find voice at the table. In particular, gathering responses from Albertans to present an unbiased report to the government was the committee’s entire purpose.
“This is an independent process that will be fiercely independent and very, very focused on listening to the views of Alberta and making sure that the government has a fair understanding,” said Mr. Wallace.
The government’s online survey can be found at www.alberta.ca/coal-policy-engagement.aspx. The survey closes April 19.
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze