The Alberta government is renewing and expanding its restrictions on coal mining in the province’s Rocky Mountains in response to a strong public outcry and two reports written following extensive consultations on the issue.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Friday she will maintain a ministerial order that already blocks all coal exploration and development in the region’s most sensitive lands. That order has been extended to cover a much wider swath of the province’s summits and foothills.
Coal development will now be blocked on all lands originally covered by the province’s 1976 coal policy until land-use plans, which require public consultation and legislative approval, are complete.
“We’ve actually strengthened the 1976 coal policy,” said Savage. “No new activity will be allowed.”
Some environmentalists cautiously welcomed the announcement.
“It’s a big step, especially considering where we were two years ago,” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
“My caveat on that is concern about kicking the can down the road to the land-use planning.
“They haven’t said this is permanent protection of these regions. It’s a protection for now until those land-use plans are completed.”
New Democrat Opposition leader Rachel Notley agreed, noting that the development ban is subject to the minister’s discretion.
“The whole question of ‘until there’s a land-use plan in place’ is up for a tremendous amount of interpretation. With these guys, that worries me,” Notley said.
“(A development ban) needs to be in legislation.”
Notley said she will reintroduce a private member’s bill in the legislature Monday that will do just that.
The Kainai First Nation, which opposed coal exploration in court and whose traditional lands include some that have been leased, said it was pleased with Friday’s announcement.
“We look forward to Alberta following through with the additional commitments they have made to Kainai and other First Nations to ensure that future land-use planning and water-quality plans will protect our lands and watersheds,” said a statement from the band.
Chief Ouray Crowfoot of the Siksika First Nation also applauded the continuation of the exploration ban, but said more needed to be done.
“This should be just the beginning,” he said. “The eastern slopes of the Rockies need more protection.”
Carol Wildcat of the Ermineskin First Nation, which has traditional lands along the eastern slopes, said she looks forward to working with the government on land-use plans.
“Instead of just being consulted, I hope it’s going to be a real relationship,” she said.
The Canadian Press reached out to the heads of several coal mining companies and the Coal Association of Canada, but no comment was immediately available.
Friday’s announcement came with the release of two reports, the result of nine months of work from a five-member panel that held 67 sessions with more than 70 groups and received 176 written submissions.
The submissions and a survey with about 25,000 respondents have already been made public and show Albertans have major concerns about open-pit coal mining in one of the province’s best-loved and most environmentally sensitive landscapes, as well as the source of much of its drinking water.
The part of the eastern slopes most affected by new coal exploration is already covered by the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, which has been adopted by the legislature and is legally enforceable. It says water in the region is already fully allocated and disturbances from roads and trails are over environmental thresholds.
But that plan doesn’t discuss coal mining and must be reviewed by 2024.
Craig Snodgrass, mayor of the town of High River, said he’ll be paying attention.
“With the (plan) being opened up, we’re all going to be watching that,” he said.
Still, he said Friday’s announcement was pretty good from a government in which the premier has said he strongly supports the coal industry.
“It’s not the hard ‘no’ that we all wanted,” Snodgrass said. “But this is probably the best we could have hoped for.”
Four coal projects already before regulators can continue with that process if the proponents choose.
Savage added that the consultation panel also revealed Albertans have come to distrust the province’s regulatory system. Savage said that will be addressed, although she didn’t say how.
“We have heard concerns loud and clear and will work to improve public trust,” she said.
Coal mining in the Rockies has been a hot topic in Alberta for two years, ever since the United Conservative government revoked the policy that had protected those summits and foothills since 1976.
Thousands of hectares were quickly leased for exploration, but a public outcry forced the government to halt those activities and pause lease sales until the panel reported.
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