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The Alberta government has cancelled all 11 coal mining leases it signed in December, but a controversial project in the scenic foothills of the Rocky Mountains will continue to make its way through the regulatory process.

The Grassy Mountain coal project by Benga Mining Ltd. is a proposed mine for metallurgical coal – used in steelmaking – in the Crowsnest Pass. It is projected to produce about 93 million tonnes over a 23-year mine life.

Benga filed an application for the project with the Alberta Energy Regulator in 2015. It has been making its way through the system ever since, but drew widespread concern from the public after the company bid $672 for an extra 192-hectare parcel of land during the December offering of coal mining rights that produced the 11 new leases.

By Monday, more than 100,000 signatures had been collected on two petitions opposing the United Conservative Party government’s coal policies.

One asked the province to reconsider a decision that revoked a 1976 policy protecting the foothills and the Rockies from coal mining. Brought in by Peter Lougheed’s government, the policy laid out how and where coal development could go ahead, forbade open-pit mines over a large area, and banned any mining at all in the most sensitive spots.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage quietly withdrew that policy in May, in effect removing the province’s land-use classification system. That in turn made it easier for companies to pursue coal mining projects in sensitive regions, although all proposed mines still must undergo environmental and regulatory reviews.

The other petition specifically opposed the Benga project, which is in the federal-provincial environmental review process.

Alberta country music star Corb Lund – who ranches in the region – also weighed in.

The sixth-generation southern Albertan took to social media to lambaste the government, pointing out the area of the proposed mine contains the headwaters for freshwater on which millions depend. Coal mining can release selenium, a highly toxic element that is already poisoning watersheds downstream of coal mines in British Columbia.

“The scope of this thing – it’s huge,” Mr. Lund told The Canadian Press in a recent interview. “I’m from the foothills and it threatens the hell out of our water. And the mountains. It’s a big one.”

In a bid to ease Albertans’ vocal opposition to expanding mining in the province, Ms. Savage issued a press release on Monday evening saying her government would cancel all 11 coal leases issued in December. It has also paused any future coal lease sales in former Category 2 lands - sensitive areas including the Rocky Mountains and foothills, where the 1976 policy permitted exploration in a limited capacity only and under strict controls.

“We have listened carefully to the concerns raised in recent days, and thank those who spoke up with passion,” Ms. Savage said.

“This pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected. Coal development remains an important part of the Western Canadian economy, especially in rural communities, but we are committed to demonstrating that it will only be developed responsibly under Alberta’s modern regulatory standards and processes.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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