The UCP government has rescinded a decades-old policy that restricted coal mining in parts of the Rocky Mountains and Foothills, setting the stage for a coal mining expansion in Alberta.
Amid a global economic slowdown spurred by the spread of COVID-19, Alberta’s government is paving the way for a resurgence of coal mining in the province, a move some observers say threatens sensitive ecosystems that, until June, had been protected for decades.
This spring, the United Conservative Party government rolled back protections that had restricted exploration and prevented open-pit coal mining across parts of the Rocky Mountains and Foothills since 1976. The decision, which was announced in mid-May and came into force June 1, was framed as part of Alberta’s economic recovery. “Rescinding the outdated coal policy in favour of modern oversight will help attract new investment for an important industry and protect jobs for Albertans,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a statement at the time.
The provincial economy was hit hard this year, first by the oil price war between Russia and Saudia Arabia, then by an unprecedented plunge in demand for oil due to the pandemic. And as restaurants, movie theatres, hair salons and many other businesses closed their doors to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, unemployment shot up. In June, the province’s unemployment rate was 15.5 per cent.
“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,” Savage said in May. The concern for some Albertans, though, is that the government’s open-for-business stance on coal threatens to destroy a landscape that is important to First Nations and serves as critical habitat for grizzlies, caribou and the Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout, listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act.
“It’s a backwards move,” said Marlene Poitras, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Alberta. The decision to rescind protections was made without adequately consulting with First Nations, she said.
Shaun Fluker, an associate law professor at the University of Calgary, said “the timing is very unfortunate and seems calculated to implement a change like this at a time or a moment when negative feedback or criticism or resistance would be difficult to mount.” “The government certainly could have waited to make this announcement at a time when more public dialogue was possible and feasible,” he said. “You could say they used the public health emergency as a cloak to defend against any criticism that might attract.”
The 1976 Alberta coal policy
In 1976, Alberta released a wide-ranging coal development policy that covered land use planning, royalties, labour requirements, landowner rights and environmental protections. Many of these provisions were either not enforced or had previously been replaced with updated measures. Until June 1, the land classification system, which divided the province into four land categories that allowed varying levels of coal exploration and development, was the only portion of the policy that remained in place.
Category 1 lands — where coal leasing, exploration and development were not permitted — will continue to be protected. Previously, surface mining was banned on category 2 lands, which included parts of the Rocky Mountains and the Foothills, and exploration and underground development was limited. Exploration was allowed on lands listed as category 3 under the normal process but development in these areas was restricted. Now, restrictions on category 2 and 3 lands have been removed.
Companies with coal agreements on category 2 and 3 lands no longer face development restrictions that had been in place under the 1976 policy. Map: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. According to the Alberta government, the intent of the 1976 coal policy “was to ensure that there were appropriate regulatory and environmental protection measures in place before new coal projects were authorized.”
While the province says the coal policy is replaced by “modern regulatory processes, integrated planning and land use policies,” some experts are quick to note that regional land use plans have not yet been completed for the entire area previously protected by the coal policy.
The 1976 document “was an overarching policy that gave direction to the regulator and specifically said certain activities are acceptable in this area, but they’re not acceptable in other areas,” explained Brenda Heelan Powell, staff counsel at the Environmental Law Centre. “That gives a signal to the regulator on cumulative effects and appropriate development,” she said. “And while that could happen through the regional planning, it’s not complete for that entire area.”
A regional plan has been completed for the South Saskatchewan region in southern Alberta, but the planning process is ongoing in the North Saskatchewan region, which includes parts of the Rockies and Foothills, and has yet to begin in other areas. In the absence of an overarching land-use policy that guards against the cumulative effects of resource development, coal projects are likely to be assessed on a project by project basis, Heelan Powell said.
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