The Alberta Beef Producers are expressing frustration with the Alberta government’s decision to bin a decades-old policy restricting coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, a move that many ranchers see as threatening their livelihoods and the land they manage.
Last spring Alberta’s Energy Minister Sonya Savage rescinded A Coal Development Policy for Alberta, a policy enacted in 1976 that blocked open-pit mines in particularly sensitive areas and only allowed underground mines in some areas if they passed muster environmentally. Savage’s move has drawn opposition from ranchers and First Nations, who say they were not consulted about the changes, and fear chemicals from the projects will contaminate waterways.
The Alberta Beef Producer’s board recently passed a resolution to lobby the provincial government to reinstate the coal policy until “proper public consultation is complete,” states a release. While the organization “recognizes the importance of modernizing outdated government policies,” Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) encourages “public consultation when creating policies related to land use.”
Public debate about the coal policy’s demise has heated up in recent weeks. Recent criticism from musicians such as Corb Lund, Paul Brandt and Terri Clark has fueled the public outcry. Alberta ranchers Macleay Blades and John Smith are facing off against the government in court. Siksika Nation and Kainai Nation (also known as the Blood Tribe), Ermineskin Cree Nation and Whitefish Lake First Nation have also launched legal challenges. Justice Richard Neufeld has consolidated the cases, but reserved his decision on whether to grant intervenor status to several groups, as well as whether the case will move forward.
Meanwhile, Savage recently released a statement that the 11 coal leases from the December 2020 auction will be cancelled, that future coal lease sales on Category 2 lands will be paused and thanking “those who spoke up with passion.”
“ABP is not opposed to environmentally responsible resource extraction,” states the ABP release “We hope the decision by Minister of Energy Sonya Savage to pause future coal leases provides the necessary motivation for further consultation on land use decisions in the region.”
However, Savage’s cancellation of the coal leases doesn’t affect projects already under regulatory review, including Grassy Mountain.
The Grassy Mountain Coal Project, located near the headwaters of the Oldman River watershed, has drawn the most fire. To access the coal, companies would practice mountaintop removal mining, a method used in the Appalachians of the southeastern U.S. Topsoil and vegetation would be removed, and rock above the coal seam would be blasted until the coal is exposed. The blasting risks releasing toxic elements, particularly selenium.
Australia’s Bengal Mining Limited plans to remove up to 4.5 million tonnes of metallurgical coal per year from the Grassy Mountain site. While the project has been working through federal and provincial approvals for years, those opposed to the project see the coal policy’s removal as easing approvals for Bengal’s proposal.
“We’re not anti-development at all, but you’re not going to put a mountain back, you’re not going to put the native grasses back and you’re definitely not going to revert it back to pasture land after. That’s just not going to happen,” Laura Laing told Canadian Cattlemen reporter Piper Whelan last summer. Laing and husband John Smith run Plateau Cattle Co., and are part of the legal case challenging the government’s decision to remove the policy. They also have a grazing allotment on the Eastern Slopes.
“For the general public, if they look west when they’re driving the Cowboy Trail, that landscape’s going to change,” said Laing.
Industry proponents say that a new treatment method would prevent selenium contamination. The method is being piloted by Teck Resources Ltd., the owner of nearby B.C. mines that have been releasing selenium into water, drawing complaints from U.S. officials downstream, the Globe and Mail reports.
The issue shows few signs of cooling. The United Conservative government’s lawyers argue that the government was within its rights to revoke the coal policy without consultation, as it wasn’t tied to any regulations or legislation, the Globe and Mail reports. They argue that the Alberta Land Stewardship Act doesn’t allow for judicial review and that regional plans don’t have legal status. Richard Harrison, lawyer for Blades and Smith, argued that his client should have been consulted, given that one proposed project’s infrastructure would run right through his grazing lease.
Alberta has been hammered for several years by bearish oilfield economics, and there are few positive signs on the horizon, especially as U.S. President Biden axed the Keystone XL pipeline expansion this week. Benga has stated that the Grassy Mountain mine would create about 400 full-time jobs at peak production. Some locals have expressed support for the project, including Blair Painter, mayor of Crowsnest Pass.
“This community is in desperate need of industry,” Painter stated in a 2019 letter.
Still, some in agriculture see the coal policy’s removal as short-sighted, both economically and environmentally. Laing is concerned about the loss of already endangered native grasslands, grasslands that she relies on as a rancher.
“We don’t have somewhere else to go, and that will greatly reduce the sustainability of our operation. Where are we going to find grassland for over 155 pair that go up there for the summer months? So where’s the support to the cattle industry or the ranching operations when we’re selling out these native grasslands?”
With files from Piper Whelan.