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Nanton rancher Mac Blades, on his ranch, is among the southern Alberta ranchers opposed to the proposed new coal mining policy in the Rocky Mountains by the Jason Kenney government.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

A 44-year-old coal and land protection policy – quietly killed by the Alberta government on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend last May – has led to a court challenge and a public backlash so strong the government has cancelled recently issued land leases for coal mining.

At the heart of the discontent is the United Conservative government’s decision to tear up the stringent 1976 Coal Policy, and the potential for more open-pit mining in the fragile land and crucial Alberta watersheds flanked by the Rocky Mountains.

The policy, introduced under Peter Lougheed, laid out how and where coal development could go ahead in the province. It banned open-pit mines over a large area by using land classifications, with completely or highly protected areas deemed categories 1 or 2.

Developed over four years using feedback from hundreds of landowners, coal proponents, First Nations and others, it was revoked with no public consultation.

Its removal has made it easier for companies to pursue mines in sensitive regions, though all proposed projects must undergo environmental and regulatory reviews.

The government’s decision is being challenged in court by ranchers in Southern Alberta who graze cattle on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Their land comprises part of the 1.4 million hectares opened up for potential open-pit coal mining with the end of Category 2 protection.

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Nanton ranchers Laura Laing and John Smith are against the Alberta government ripping up the 1976 coal policy.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

John Smith, his wife, Laura Laing, and their neighbour Mac Blades say the government failed in its duty to consult before ripping up the policy. The Bearspaw, Kainai, Siksika, Ermineskin and Goodfish Lake First Nations are making a similar argument in a separate filing. Alberta government lawyers counter there is no case because the policy is a matter for elected officials, not courts. The judge has yet to rule whether to proceed to a judicial review.

Coal mines would devastate Mr. Smith and Ms. Laing’s cattle operation, but they say they’re fighting for a bigger issue – water.

Of particular concern is the Oldman River, which is vital for residents and agricultural operations across Southern Alberta. The runoff of coal-mining waste often releases large quantities of selenium, which can be toxic to fish populations.

“It’s everybody’s water. The possibility of contamination is real in the Elk Valley downstream from these coal mines,” Ms. Laing told The Globe and Mail. “This is the water for more than two million Canadians.”

Alberta’s Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Environment Minister Jason Nixon declined to be interviewed for this story.

In May, the government said in a press release that scrapping the 1976 policy was a “common-sense decision” that would “create certainty and flexibility for industry” and help attract investment. It argued the change puts the acquisition of coal rights on equal footing with other commodities such as oil and gas, and said regulatory reviews will protect sensitive land.

Applications for five new coal mines are currently before the Alberta Energy Regulator. All are in the exploration phase, which covers any work to determine the presence of coal by test drilling or anything that disturbs the surface.

Atrum Coal Ltd., an Australian company proposing one of the new mines, celebrated the government’s decision to rescind the policy. Its Elan project is slated to produce about six million tonnes of metallurgical coal a year. (Unlike thermal coal, which is burned for power, metallurgical or coking coal is used in steel production.)

Scrapping land designations eases the path forward for Elan because Atrum no longer requires an exemption for being on land formerly designated Category 2, the company said in a May press release. However, chief executive Andy Caruso says the company still faces stringent review from regulators before the mine can go ahead.

“Irrespective of whether the 1976 Coal Policy is in force or not, the Elan project, along with any other proposed coal developments in Alberta, are still subject to the highly robust and targeted federal environmental approvals process and the full scrutiny of the Alberta Energy Regulator,” Mr. Caruso wrote in an e-mail to The Globe.

Still, thousands of Albertans aren’t happy with the provincial government making it easier for new coal mines to come into operation.

Country music star Corb Lund, a sixth-generation Albertan whose family has ranched in the southern part of the province for decades, isn’t one to generally get involved in politics, but he told The Globe the risks of new coal mining are too serious to ignore.

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The Rocky Mountains near the Livingstone Range.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

He spent months researching the issue when he first heard about it, speaking with an array of people including toxicologists, ranchers, politicians, local First Nations, hunters and the coal lobby. Similar to Mr. Smith and Ms. Laing, he’s particularly concerned about water contamination.

“Basically, we’re giving up the Rocky Mountains – and really jeopardizing our water source for a big part of the province – for peanuts, for a handful of jobs,” he said. “The cost just doesn’t add up.”

Mr. Lund says the government should reinstate the policy because it provides much stronger protections than regulations alone.

“My dad told me if you make a mistake, you own it, you apologize, you fix it and you move forward,” he said. “That would be the most powerful thing [the government] could do.”

Mr. Lund’s concerns have captured the public imagination. More than 100,000 people have signed petitions demanding the government bring back the 1976 rule.

Last week, in the wake of the outcry, the government paused the sale of coal leases in former Category 2 lands. It also cancelled 11 leases signed in December by two mining companies.

But both companies whose leases were cancelled said the move doesn’t affect the viability of their current projects.

One is Riversdale Resources Ltd., a subsidiary of Australian mining giant Hancock Prospecting. Riversdale owns the Grassy Mountain project, which sits on what was unprotected Category 4 lands in the Crowsnest Pass. It’s on the site of an old mine that closed in the 1960s, and it is set to produce around 93 million tonnes of metallurgical coal over its 23-year mine life.

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One of the many signs against the new coal mining policy by the Kenney government that have popped up across southern Alberta.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Grassy Mountain is in the midst of a joint review by the provincial regulator and the federal assessment agency. Riversdale vice-president Gary Houston said he’s confident they will make their decision “based on science and technology.”

“All the company can do is make a good proposal, be transparent, do the science, apply the latest technology – and that’s what we’ve done,” he said.

The other 10 cancelled leases belong to Montem Resources Ltd., an Australian development company trying to revive the Tent Mountain mine, also in the Crowsnest Pass. The operation shut down in the early 1980s after losing a key contract. Montem aims to be back in production in 2022 and hopes to produce one million tonnes of coal annually over 14 years.

As part of its mine proposal, Montem plans to drastically mitigate selenium runoff to levels below mandated maximums. The previous owners left the site in bad shape, said Montem’s CEO, Peter Doyle, with selenium leaking into a nearby creek. Eventually public hearings will be held and Mr. Doyle says he welcomes the opportunity to hear from all stakeholders.

“We don’t want them to think that we’re just a giant company with scant [regard] for the environment and the people,” he said. “That’s the opposite of what we are. We’re a small company that’s very focused on our obligation to be effective and conscious stewards of these resources.”

While thermal coal has fallen out of favour because of its dirty carbon footprint – European investors in particular are pulling back from the fuel – the coking coal market has rebounded over the past six months because of a resurgence in demand coupled with pressures on the supply side.

China in particular is using a lot more after it ramped up its production of steel. It usually gets the bulk of that from Australia, the world’s biggest producer of metallurgical coal. But after a political dust-up late last year, China imposed import restrictions on Aussie coal and other products.

The dislocation in the global supply chain has driven up the price of metallurgical coal imported into China to US$214 per tonne from US$115 in June, a rise of more than 85 per cent.

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