Province forced to backtrack on coal mining projects following removal of protections
By Noel Harper, News Editor
In May 2020, the Alberta government removed an environmental policy aimed at protecting some of the province’s natural areas from being used for coal mining operations. The policy, which was in place since 1976, expired the following month in June. However, the government’s post-coal policy plans resulted in outcry, thanks to a recent public awareness campaign.
The Coal Policy is described as “obsolete” and predating “modern regulatory processes” on the province’s coal guidelines webpage. Crown lands in western Alberta were divided into four categories of coal leasing by their sensitivity to development, location and type of ecosystem.
They ranged from category 1 — which encompasses much of Alberta’s western border with B.C. including both Banff and Jasper National Parks, where no coal development could take place — to adjacent category 2 lands where open-pit mines were forbidden, to categories 3 and 4, which had the least amount of restrictions per the 1976 policy.
With the removal of the Coal Policy, the four categories were also removed. Those areas designated as category 1 under the policy would still be protected under new regulations, the government says, but category 2 lands are now subject to further open-pit coal leases.
The province began to demonstrate its new coal mining rules in December by granting 11 new coal leases in former category 2 territory. These projects would focus not on thermal coal — used for coal power — but instead metallurgical coal, which is used in the production of steel.
The leases represented a fraction of the category 2 areas that could be mined under the province’s new policy. But, the 11 leases were, in effect, a test of new coal mining abilities in Alberta, coming months after the protections were first removed.
Once public figures in the province began to speak up about how the issue would affect the prairies, Albertans at large began to pay attention.
In a YouTube video posted in early January, country singer Corb Lund explains how Alberta ranching families brought these changes to his attention.
“From what I understand, there wasn’t a whole lot of consultation with the public, or ranchers or farmers, or First Nations people, or municipalities or anything. I don’t think that’s how you should govern,” Lund says in the video.
Lund’s calls for a closer look at these changes were soon echoed by his fellow musicians Paul Brandt, Terri Clark and k.d. lang.
On Jan. 18, the province announced that coal leases were being paused in category 2 areas, and the few leases assigned in December were to be cancelled outright.
“Under the current terms, just as it was under the 1976 coal policy, coal leases do not allow for exploration, development or production without a comprehensive regulatory review,” reads a statement from Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage.
Coal mining projects that began before December continue to be reviewed by the province.