Coal mining to be permitted in previously protected areas

By Catherine Griwkowsky May 25, 2020

All but the most environmentally sensitive areas in the Rocky Mountains and foothills are now available for open-pit mining, following the government’s recent repeal of a series of coal regulations covering the Eastern Slopes.

The area includes 4.7 million hectares of land home to at-risk species as well as the headwaters that are the source of drinking water for much of Alberta.

The province framed the repeal of the regulations associated with the 1976 Coal Act as a modernization of “outdated land use restrictions.” A government news release states the changes will create favourable conditions for ramping up the province’s coal exports.

“As we strengthen our focus on economic recovery and revitalization, we will continue to make common-sense decisions to create certainty and flexibility for industry while ensuring sensitive lands are protected for Albertans to continue to enjoy,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage said on May 15.

Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) conservation specialist Nissa Petterson said areas no longer protected under the new regulations include habitat for woodland caribou, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. 

Petterson said she is shocked the government changes were made without consultation.

“We need a healthy environment in order to thrive, whether that be economically, socially or even just on a basic human health perspective,” she told AB Today in an interview. 

“It is discouraging that this wasn’t something that was transparent and inclusive to the public,” said Petterson, who learned of the change via a news release dropped on the Friday before the May long weekend.

Mining still banned in the most sensitive areas
Mining on Category 1 land, which is deemed by law to have highest environmental sensitivity, will still be banned. But Petterson said that most of that land is already protected because it’s located in national parks.

The other protected zones were eliminated and are now treated the same as any other area of the province.

The previous framework allowed for an evaluation of projects based on how close they were to high-sensitivity areas, Petterson explained.  

“It essentially took a holistic approach to the Eastern Slopes and how it could be impacted by future coal mining operations,” she said, noting the province has no system in place to manage the cumulative effects of industrial endeavors.  

Former environment minister turned coal lobbyist pushed for the changes
The regulatory changes follow lobbying from former environment minister and current Coal Association of Canada (CAC) president Robin Campbell.

Alberta’s lobbyist registry shows Campbell requested meetings with the minister and deputy minister of energy as well as the premier to discuss the province’s coal policy.

On September 17, 2019, the organization met with Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon to ensure the work being carried out by the province’s caribou task force “does not strand Alberta’s coal assets, both existing projects and potential projects in the Eastern Slopes,” according to a filing on the lobbyist registry. 

That same day, it also recorded a meeting with Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson to discuss consultation with Indigenous people on coal projects.

Decision was shocking’: NDP critic
Under the new regime, coal development will now be treated in the same way as other industrial development, including approval subject to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

That’s cold comfort for NDP Environment and Parks critic Marlin Schmidt.

“Well, big deal,” Schmidt said in an interview with AB Today. “Which industry is really afraid of dealing with the AER? There’s no history of the AER saying no to any industrial development of any kind.”

Schmidt said open-pit mining has a significant impact on the landscape and that the economic gain is not worth the environment and health impacts in the area.

“It was quite shocking to me that they made the decision to repeal a long-standing policy that really struck a good balance between economic development and conservation,” Schmidt said.

But Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said the changes do strike that balance.

“Our government is continuing to protect our natural resources, including critical watersheds and biodiversity along the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains,” Nixon said in a news release.

Schmidt argues the lack of consultation is a pattern since Nixon took over, pointing to changes the UCP made to the parks system and the suspension of environmental monitoring requirements.

“These kinds of moves are going to pit Albertans against each other and will not be productive in any way in getting Alberta’s economy back on its feet and getting people through the pandemic,” Schmidt said.

Alberta currently has nine active coal mines — two metallurgical mines and seven thermal mines.

AB Today requested further clarification on the change from the Government of Alberta, including the estimated economic benefit, as well as information on who was consulted before the move.

AB Today also reached out to the CAC for comment, but a spokesperson was not available prior to publication time.