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Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon speaks in Calgary on Sept. 15, 2020.Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Alberta cabinet ministers are defending the government’s widely criticized plans to consult the public over open-pit coal development in the province’s Rocky Mountains.

“Our goal is to ensure the government’s approach to coal reflects the best interests of Albertans and will balance stringent environmental protections and the approach to resource development,” said Energy Minister Sonya Savage in an e-mail.

On Thursday, Savage’s department released rules for the consultations, which resulted from an outcry over the government’s surprise plan for a massive increase in coal mining along the summits and foothills of the Rockies.

But those terms of reference limit what the five-member panel gathering the feedback can listen to. Presenters can only address issues that come under the authority of the Department of Energy.

Concerns over the destruction of a beloved landscape and the possible contamination of headwaters for most of the province’s freshwater are off the table.

That’s despite the fact that those issues have been the most commonly raised by Albertans. Thousands of hectares have been leased for exploration as road building and drilling continue.

At the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention on Friday, Mayor Jim Willett of Coutts, Alta., asked Environment Minister Jason Nixon if his department would supplement Savage’s plans.

“We all thought a review of the coal policy would include a discussion surrounding water sources and usage and the land use act,” he said. “Is there a plan for another panel to discuss the points Albertans are most concerned about?”

Nixon appeared to suggest there’s no need for one, saying the province’s water management is unchanged.

“Nothing has changed when it comes to water licences, water approvals, the Water Act or environmental legislation when it comes to water around coal,” he said.

“All of the strict water rules remain within this province. They have not changed and they will not be changed in any way associated with coal.”

Willett, whose municipality is in south-central Alberta, called that a “non-answer.” He pointed out the government has opened discussions on water allocations in the area with a view to making the resource available for coal mines.

“We know it’s being discussed. And if it’s being discussed, why shouldn’t we have some input on it?” he said. “Why is it such a narrow mandate that (the government) has given to the coal study group?”

Savage said concerns such as Willett’s “go beyond the scope of coal.”

“This engagement is focused on how the province manages coal resources,” she said.

Savage said the consultation is designed to gather input around the protections for various land categories contained in Alberta’s coal policy, which the government rescinded last spring and recently restored under public pressure.

“(It’s) largely focused on the aspects of coal which sparked public concern – for example, the protections outlined under the coal categories.”

Nigel Bankes, professor of resource law at the University of Calgary, said that’s the problem.

“If this is all we’re going to get out of this consultation, then it’s a policy on development of coal, not a policy on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.”

The consultation is, he said, “incredibly narrow.”

“I suspect within cabinet there was real push to keep this confined. I think it was a deliberate political decision.”

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