Woodlands County Council touched on a tricky subject last week; coal exploration in the Eastern Slopes of Alberta

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The letter, penned by High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass, stated that "in June of 2020, the Government of Alberta rescinded the Coal Development Policy without adequate consultation with First Nations, environmental groups, residents, property owners and local governments."

In his letter, the High River mayor stated that the Coal Policy was introduced to guide coal extraction in "one of the most important landscapes in Alberta and Canada. The Eastern Slopes provide water to users from the Rockies to the Hudson Bay." He said that for 44 years, the policy provided "essential protection of valuable water resources, ensuring downstream communities had access to clean drinking water, that farmers had access to irrigation water to protect their livelihoods and that ecosystems that tourists come to experience remain in their pristine state."

Mayor Snodgrass said that the rescindment of any policy that "affects public lands and/or water resources" requires public consultation. He and Council responded to the rescindment by adopting a resolution during their January 11, 2021, Council meeting. The resolution directed their Administration to draft a letter to Premier Jason Kenney requesting the immediate reinstatement of the 1976 Alberta Coal Policy and that they do public consultations with Indigenous groups, environmental groups, and all stakeholders in Alberta. The resolution included sending the letter to the Minister of Environment and Parks, the Minister of Energy, and their area MLA. They also asked for a meeting with the Premier.

Ahead of their February 1, 2021, Council meeting, the High River Administration had not heard anything back from their letter, leading them to take further action. During that meeting, they created a new resolution. It stated that coal exploration is causing "irreparable damage to the landscape and watersheds and adversely affecting the public's access, use and enjoyment of Crown lands on the Eastern Slopes of Alberta." The resolution was firm in its request that all coal exploration "be immediately ceased on the Eastern Slopes of Alberta until public consultation has taken place." They requested that the Government of Alberta and Premier Jason Kenney issue immediate stop-work orders for all existing coal exploration permits and cease the issue of new ones.

The updated resolution directed their Administration to seek legal options relating to the "damage caused due to exploration." It also required that a letter, including a copy of their resolution, be sent to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, Rural Municipalities of Alberta, Municipalities of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. The letter requested their support in High River's push to have the coal policy reinstated.

Multiple municipalities joined the push, and on February 8, the Provincial Government of Alberta reinstated the coal policy and prohibited future coal exploration approvals on Category 2 lands "pending widespread consultations on a new coal policy," states the www.alberta.ca website. It further noted that the initial rescission of the 1976 Coal Policy was "administrative, with the goal of updating the leasing process. However, the change led to lack of clarity around intended protections on sensitive lands."

During Woodlands County's June 15 Regular Meeting, Council was presented with another letter from the Town of High River, dated mid-May, stating they are still concerned about coal. Once again seeking support, the High River Council presented their version of a policy that they felt better reflected protection of the Eastern Slopes. If approved by the province, High River's proposed Alberta Cold Restriction Policy would stop all further coal exploration or developments on the Eastern Slopes. The second of three principles states that the mining operations in Hinton/Grande Cache areas would be "permitted to retire gracefully." And third, that lands disturbed by coal exploration activities with permits issued before February 8, 2021, "be reclaimed no later than December 31, 2025."

CAO Gordon Frank gave a brief breakdown of the letter before adding, "they are asking for you to endorse their proposal." Councillor Dale Kluin spoke first. "It's one of those really touchy subjects these days when we get into coal and oil." He stated that he had not heard anything from Grande Cache on the matter and how they feel about other communities pushing the issue. "I know what this has done to their town. It destroyed it, and there is not much left. I would like to know what their opinion is because, as I said, it is one of those real touchy things. Some communities are being affected in one way, and others are being affected in another way. I know where these people are coming from."

Councillor Bruce Prestidge did not think Council should endorse the letter nor play a part in supporting the Town of High River's goal of getting the coal policy reinstated. "This is about the Hinton/Grande Cache areas. I think this has nothing to do with us, and with that, I am going to recommend that council accept the letter as information." That means that they acknowledge having received the letter and read it but are not doing anything beyond that.

Councillor Dave Kusch expressed his agreement with both Councillor Kluin and Councillor Prestidge. "If you were to flip this around and say, talk about the forestry industry and people were putting out letters in support of it against us, and what we do here, it's the same thing. This affects other communities and their revenue sources, and I think we should, as Councillor Prestidge said, accept for information." Council then voted unanimously to do just that.

Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press

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