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Minister of Energy Sonya Savage listens while Premier Jason Kenney responds to the media at a press conference in Edmonton on June 18, 2019.AMBER BRACKEN/The Canadian Press

A new Alberta committee will lead public consultations on how the province should manage coal development, the latest move to mollify public backlash against the government’s decision to quietly kill a 44-year-old coal and land protection policy.

Cancellation of the 1976 coal policy in May made it easier for companies to pursue mines in sensitive regions, but widespread public anger about its removal forced the government to backpedal. It reinstated the policy, cancelled 11 coal leases and promised to consult with Albertans to come up with a new coal mining plan.

The first official steps in that process began Monday with the announcement of the new, independent committee. A survey for Albertans to share their thoughts is also online until April 19. The government says it will work directly with Indigenous leaders and communities to hear their perspectives.

The committee has until Nov. 15 to provide a final report to Energy Minister Sonya Savage. That report will detail Albertans’ perspectives on coal development and provide recommendations for a modern coal policy.

Ms. Savage said Monday that establishing a committee separate from government will ensure all Albertans can have their voices heard as part of the consultations.

“This is an essential step in ensuring a new modern coal policy is developed by Albertans for Albertans,” she said.

The five-member group comprises five Albertans with various backgrounds. It will be chaired by Ron Wallace, who has served on various energy and environmental regulatory boards including Canada’s National Energy Board.

Also on the committee are former Progressive Conservative Alberta environment minister Fred Bradley, Livingstone Landowners Group president Bill Trafford, and Eric North Peigan, a small-business owner and a member of Piikani Nation.

The other member is Natalie Charlton, executive director of the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce. Hinton is the town closest to the Vista thermal coal mine, about 270 kilometres west of Edmonton in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Thermal coal is burned to generate electricity, primarily in Asia. Coalspur, which operates the Vista mine, wants to more than double the facility’s output. The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada is reviewing the project after Ottawa said in July that the expansion would have “significant” environmental effects that fall under federal jurisdiction.

Alberta’s 1976 coal policy, introduced under then premier Peter Lougheed, laid out how and where coal development could go ahead in the province, and banned open-pit mines over a large area by using land classifications. Developed over four years using feedback from hundreds of landowners, coal proponents, First Nations and others, it was revoked last year with no public consultation.

The government’s move was roundly condemned by various environmental organizations, municipalities, farmers and ranchers – two of whom launched a case against the province as a result.

The biggest concern about more open-pit mining in the province is the potential damage, including selenium contamination, to the fragile land and crucial Alberta watersheds flanked by the Rocky Mountains. Large amounts of the element, which is essential to life in small doses, can cause fish deformities and reproductive failures.

Canadian coal-mining company Teck Coal, a subsidiary of Teck Resources Ltd., was fined $60-million last week under the Fisheries Act after pleading guilty to contaminating waterways in southeastern British Columbia.

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