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Making Sense of the Situation in Alberta’s East Slopes

Coal mining

BY RICHARD SCHNEIDER

If you are like most people, you may be having a hard time keeping track of what is going on in the East Slopes. First, the coal policy was rescinded. Then it was reinstated — sort of. Leases were awarded and then leases were cancelled. Yet a major coal mine is in the final stages of review. It’s enough to make your head spin. 

To understand what has been happening, and where things now stand, it’s best to start at the beginning. Alberta’s coal policy was developed in the mid-1970s as part of a broad planning initiative undertaken by the Lougheed government. The industrialization of Alberta’s vast hinterland was rapidly advancing, and with it came rising concerns over the environment. Lougheed believed that a balance between development and protection was necessary, and therein lay the seeds of the coal policy (and other land-use policies). In his view, the economy, the environment, and social issues represented the three legs of a stool, and if any of the legs were shorter than the others, the stool would tip over.

In subsequent years, efforts to balance economic development with environmental protection have waxed and waned. A high-profile effort occurred in the early 2000s, with the development of the Alberta Land-Use Framework and the initiation of regional planning. Unfortunately, these efforts ground to a halt under the NDP government and have gone into reverse gear with the UCP government. The flurry of policy changes announced last year — including rescinding the coal policy, delisting of parks, increasing the rate of forest harvest, and selling of public lands — reflect an ideology that is focused on development at all costs.  

Although the UCP government seems unabashedly at ease with abandoning the environmental commitments made by previous (Conservative) governments, the public is not. Moreover, the government’s decision to undertake this policy shift without any public consultation has proven to be a serious political miscalculation. Albertans of all stripes, including environmentalists, rural landowners, Indigenous groups, and even country singers have risen in opposition. And these individuals are not a fringe element. A poll conducted in February by Think HQ Public Affairs indicates that 69 percent of Albertans oppose development of new mines in areas of the province protected by the 1976 coal policy. A similar proportion oppose the delisting of provincial parks. Clearly, the government is wildly out of step with the public it was elected to serve. 

Recognizing the political consequences of their misstep, the government has been frantically backpedalling over the past couple of months. First came an announcement that no parks would be delisted. Then Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced that the government was reinstating the coal policy. So, can we conclude that it was all a bad dream and everything is back to normal? Not quite.

What we have is a temporary reprieve. The government has not actually committed to protecting the East Slopes — far from it. The expansion of coal mining in the region remains a high priority. The only commitment the government has made is to consult the public on how development should proceed. The parameters of this consultation are not yet known, but given what has transpired to date, the level of trust in the process is low. 

What about those coal leases that the government has cancelled? Surely that is a positive sign. It is, but it is less significant than it appears. Though the coal policy placed restrictions on mine development in certain areas, it permitted the protected lands to be leased. Companies have been buying these leases hoping for a regulatory exemption that would allow them to begin mining, or perhaps strategically waiting for the eventual demise of the coal policy. According to David Luff, who helped implement the province's coal policy in the 1970s, these leases now cover roughly 420,000 hectares of protected Category 2 lands. The 11 leases that were cancelled in February cover only 1,800 hectares — a fraction of one percent of the existing leases. In other words, most of the horses remain at the starting gate waiting for the pistol to fire. 

In fact, in reaction to the pro-development signals from the government, several companies have begun putting together mining proposals. Some of these initiatives are in previously protected lands and some are in adjacent unprotected lands. The most advanced project is the Grassy Mountain mine, on unprotected lands north of Blairmore. Public hearings on the project were held from October to December and a joint federal-provincial review panel is now reviewing the evidence before making a final decision about whether the project should proceed. 

Through the Grassy Mountain hearings, we have learned of the many environmental risks associated with mining in this sensitive region. In addition to the land disturbance caused by a massive open pit mine, experts have raised concerns about the far-reaching effects of water pollution. We know, for example, that the leaching of selenium is a perennial problem with open-pit coal mines. There are also concerns about ecological impacts. For example, according to the mine proposal, approximately 21,000 whitebark and limber pine trees will be destroyed. These are both endangered species in Alberta and therefore no removal can be deemed acceptable. 

An overarching issue, and one that is not addressed by individual project assessments, is that of balance. Over the past 100 years, we have progressively transformed our landscapes such that few wild places remain in Alberta. The East Slopes is one of them and most Albertans consider it to be one of our province’s crown jewels. Though we do need industry to support our economy, the development-at-any-cost ideology of the UCP government is out of touch with today’s public values. We need to harken back to Lougheed’s concept of balance, and that means leaving some parts of the province in a natural state.

The intensity and breadth of the public opposition to coal mining in the East Slopes seems to have caught the government off guard. Its recent abrupt change in direction indicates that it is now paying closer attention and also that it appreciates the political liabilities of its earlier actions. However, this is not the time to become complacent. The real battle for the protection of the East Slopes will be played out in the upcoming consultations, and nothing should be taken for granted. We all need to remain engaged and make our voices heard. That, and a bit of luck, will ensure the protection of this special region.

Richard Schneider is a conservation biologist and serves as the Executive Director of Nature Alberta.

This article originally ran in Nature Alberta Magazine - Spring 2021.

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