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The Rocky Mountains.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Alberta is halting exploration for coal on a swath of sensitive land as the province works to develop a new policy to govern mining.

It’s the latest development in a fight over coal that has seen the provincial government face a court challenge and a public backlash so strong that it was forced to backpedal on a decision to quietly tear up a 44-year-old land protection policy. It also cancelled a series of land leases earmarked for potential new mines, and struck a committee to consult with Albertans on new coal mining rules.

The 1976 Coal Policy 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.

Friday’s announcement will halt all coal exploration projects that have been granted regulatory approval for Category 2 lands, which include crucial Alberta watersheds flanked by the Rocky Mountains. The biggest concern about more open-pit mining in the province is the potential environmental damage, including selenium contamination. Large amounts of the element, which is essential to life in small doses, can cause fish deformities and reproductive failures.

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The United Conservative Party government made the decision four days after it closed a public survey about a new coal policy. Close to 25,000 Albertans responded to the survey in about three weeks.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Friday an initial review showed the majority of survey respondents had “significant concerns about coal exploration,” including the environmental impacts of coal mines and where development takes place.

As a result, the independent committee leading public coal consultations recommended that coal exploration in Category 2 lands be suspended.

The decision affects a number of companies that have built roads and are undertaking test drilling and exploration in the eastern foothills, but Ms. Savage said they have indicated they will co-operate with the moratorium.

While some Albertans have raised concerns about the narrow scope of the terms of reference that guide the committee’s work, Ms. Savage dismissed suggestions the government is coming to the table with a preordained conclusion.

“Albertans can talk about their concerns about the impact of coal on water and the environment, on tourism and other industries,” she said. “We want to hear those concerns.”

Committee chair Ron Wallace said Friday that discussions about the terms of reference had been sensationalized, adding “Albertans deserve better discussion on such an important issue.”

“This committee understands its primary role is the provision of independent advice to this minister, transparent advice that is predicated on an open engagement with the public,” he said.

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

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt welcomed Ms. Savage’s move Friday, but said the UCP government needs to do more to protect fragile lands.

The NDP recently introduced a private member’s bill that, if passed, would protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains by immediately cancelling all exploration activities in the region. It would also permanently prohibit new coal mining and related activities in Category 1 and 2 lands, and stop mining activity in all other areas pending the development of a thorough regional land-use plan.

“People from all walks of life, all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of political opinions all agree these distinctly Albertan landscapes must not be disfigured by mining, and the farms and communities that depend on this region for clean water must also be protected,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said when she tabled the bill.

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