For Laura Laing and John Smith, news that the province of Alberta planned to reinstate the 1976 Coal Policy raised more questions than answers.
Laing and Smith, who run Plateau Cattle Co. west of Nanton, Alta. were never contacted or consulted when the provincial government rescinded the Coal Policy last spring, despite the fact that this shift in policy allowed exploration for an open-pit coal mine within their ranch’s grazing allotment.
The province’s latest announcement allows the Cabin Ridge coal project on formerly protected lands in the Mt. Livingstone Range to continue exploration, still threatening the ranch’s grazing lands and financial viability.
“We continue to be concerned. We don’t trust the process very much,” says Laing. “Unfortunately, trust has been broken throughout this process.”
Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced this change in a Feb. 8 news conference, citing the growing concern of Albertans and plans for public consultation on future changes to the policy, which regulates coal mining over four land categories.
Savage stated that until consultations take place, new coal leases and new applications for coal explorations in Category 2 lands are prohibited.
The government later announced that public consultations will start March 29, but has yet to release details on how the consultations will be conducted. Alberta Energy was contacted for comment but did not respond by press time.
Prior to the Coal Policy’s cancellation, open-pit mining, also known as mountaintop removal mining, was forbidden on Category 2 lands. Coal development was entirely forbidden on all Category 1 lands, while Category 3 and 4 lands had fewer restrictions.
The cancellation lifted restrictions on 1.4 million hectares in the foothills and the Rocky Mountains, lands considered moderately to highly environmentally sensitive. As The Tyee reports, this opened the doors to Australian mining companies that have long pressured Alberta to relax rules around open-pit mining for metallurgical coal, used to make steel.
While some Albertans welcomed the province’s announcement, intense criticism continues over several mining projects being allowed to continue exploratory work. University of Calgary law professor Nigel Bankes argues this shift in policy “will not restore the status quo as it stood prior to June 1, 2020.”
For example, while the province did cancel 11 newly issued coal leases in January, it didn’t cancel the almost 200,000 hectares of new coal leases that were granted after the Coal Policy’s rescission, more than 186,000 hectares of which are Category 2 lands, The Narwhal reports.
As well, “the Minister made it clear that while she had issued a direction to the Alberta Energy Regulator not to process new application for the approval of exploration programs, this direction did not apply to exploration programs that had already been approved,” says Bankes.
Although Savage said the province has “put an outright ban on mountaintop mining,” her instructions to the Alberta Energy Regulator only refer outright to Category 2 lands, Bankes adds. This language raises questions about whether mountaintop-removal mining would be allowed elsewhere, or if the regulator would approve strip mining on the slopes of mountains.
In a letter to Savage, the Livingstone Landowners Group, representing ranchers and residents in the Livingstone Range and Porcupine Hills, reiterated its opposition to open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes.
“There is too great a risk to water, environment and protected species given there is no proven way to deal with the toxic waste, particularly selenium,” the letter states.
The threat of selenium poisoning at the headwaters of rivers that feed much of the Prairie provinces is the greatest concern for Laing and Smith, who also worry about the spread of coal dust toxins and loss of native grasslands. They predict stress on their cattle caused by the equipment and traffic required for coal development, as well as increased predation due to wildlife relocation.
Along with Mac and Renie Blades of the Rocking P Ranch, a neighbouring cow-calf operation, Laing and Smith launched a legal challenge to request a judicial review of the revoking of the Coal Policy, stating that for the provincial government to do so without public consultation was illegal. The families await the ruling of this request.
Opposition to the change in policy exploded in January after musician Corb Lund, among other public figures, criticized the government’s decision. Agriculture groups, conservation organizations and municipal councils have expressed their concerns, and several First Nations are taking the province to court.
After months of working to increase awareness on this issue, Laing is encouraged by the surge in opposition to open-pit mining in Alberta. “We felt like we were sort of shouting into the wind for about eight months,” she says.
“I think it’s important that Albertans keep phoning and writing their MLAs,” says Smith. “Their voice does matter, and this is one time when it’s been illustrated that you can make a difference.”
Preventing the far-reaching devastation that Laing and Smith saw when they visited ranchers in B.C.’s Elk Valley is at the top of their minds. This area made headlines after selenium leaching from local open-pit coal mines contaminated rivers and wells, and that isn’t the only negative impact on residents there.
“Their houses are being washed down by water trucks because of coal dust. They have air quality monitors in their hay fields,” says Laing.
“I don’t think there’s anything more critical than water and our resources in Canada. The impacts to the watershed will be felt for millennia,” she continues. “Our watershed runs all the way to Hudson Bay, so it’s a very big concern as Canadians.”