Questions remain about the depth of assurances of Alberta’s commitment to protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains from coal mining development.
On Feb. 8, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced the province would reinstate its 1976 coal policy following public backlash.
In addition to reinstating four coal categories which dictated where and how coal leasing, exploration and development could occur, Savage issued a directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) “so that no mountaintop removal will be permitted and all of the restrictions under the 1976 coal categories are to apply.”
This includes prohibiting surface mining in Category 2 lands and all future coal exploration approvals on Category 2 lands, pending widespread consultations on a new coal policy.
As well, coal leases do not necessarily allow for exploration or development, with a joining federal-provincial review required in many cases.
“Of the six coal projects currently being explored on Category 2 lands, four began exploration under the 1976 coal policy and two application were approved after the policy was rescinded,” a new release reads.
While the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is encouraged by the province’s decision for further consultation, it still has concerns.
“We still have outstanding questions and concerns regarding the fact that a number of coal exploration permits and coal leases that were approved since the coal policy was removed this summer are being allowed to move forward in these areas,” said Chris Smith, parks co-ordinator with CPAWS Northern Alberta, in an email.
“The Minister’s announcement also only prohibited ‘mountain-top removal’ mining in the Category 2 coal areas, not all surface coal mining which is what many have been concerned about, at least until consultations are able to be completed.”
Smith added there may need to be “a larger conversation” with neighbours to the east in the other Prairie provinces that receive water coming from Alberta.
“We’ve already seen with the Elk Valley in BC causing water quality concerns in the USA, that water concerns from coal mining can extend across political boundaries,” he said.
Ian Urquhart, conservation director and editor, Wildlands Advocate, Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), said in an email he’s wondering what form the consultations would take before a new coal policy is developed.
He also pointed out how Minister Savage’s spoken words “clashed profoundly” with her written ones, as she assured during her news conference how mountain-top and open-pit coal mining would not occur.
“When you read her written words to the Alberta Energy Regulator you see a very different story,” he said. “I believe a fair reading of her directive to the AER says that mountain top removal mining will only be prohibited in Category 2 lands – not everywhere in Alberta. “
Urquhart said any consultations about a new coal must be conducted through a process led by independent, third-party experts.
“Those experts must hold extensive public hearings throughout Alberta to give the tens of thousands citizens who spoke out against rescinding the coal policy the opportunity to shape a new policy,” he said.
“Independent, third-party experts and public hearings – the future of a magnificent landscape that is central to our identity as Albertans demands nothing less.”
Longtime Jasperite Art Jackson said he was worried about the current state of the water supply.
“The headwaters of all our river systems that flow east are being contaminated by the current mining process,” he said. “We have coal leases on the eastern border just outside Jasper National Park. They extend all the way north to Grande Prairie and there is no protection of the water.”
Jackson said he was happy Albertans are stepping up to protect “this precious resource, which affects all future generations and all life forms that have no voice.”
Jenna McGrath, a local municipal councillor, is adamant about protecting the environment. Her motion at council’s Feb. 2 meeting to have administration write a letter to the province about rescinding the 1976 coal policy was defeated, but McGrath urges people to speak up.
“Much work needs to be done to ensure the future of our clean water and air,” McGrath said. “(I) hope that Albertans continue to advocate for open, honest governance and public consultation.”
Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh