Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The Alberta government’s changes to a 45-year-old policy that ruled out most coal development in highly protected areas prompted intense outrage that spread across the political spectrum.
The original coal policy, introduced under then-premier Peter Lougheed, 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 Category 1 or 2 lands.
But on a Friday afternoon before the May long weekend last year, the province’s United Conservative Party government scrapped the policy, which it argued was outdated.
The reaction has been building ever since, with critics including environmentalists, ranchers, First Nations, country music stars and members of the UCP caucus. Opponents warned of a coming increase in open-pit coal mining, including mountain-top mines, which they argued would contaminate water and destroy pristine areas of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Southern Alberta ranchers and First Nations took the government to court, arguing the province had failed in its duty to consult them.
The government brushed aside the criticism and insisted any new coal mining would be done responsibly. While they cancelled new coal leases in January, they also played down the idea that the province had changed anything at all, arguing that coal mining was never outright banned under the old policy. The UCP put up a webpage to respond to those complaints with the “coal hard facts.”
But in the end, the pressure was too great. Energy Minister Sonya Savage held a news conference on Monday to announce that the 1976 policy was back. There would be no new exploration permitted, she said, as the province conducted a wholesale review of its coal policy.
In what was a rare reversal for the UCP, Ms. Savage acknowledged the government mishandled the file.
“An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you’ve made a mistake and to fix it, and that’s what we’re doing,” said Ms. Savage.
However, coal exploration that has already been granted regulatory approval will be allowed to continue, and the government’s opponents have argued the coal policy review will simply be used to make the same changes. That sets up the possibility for another confrontation about coal policy later on – potentially even closer to the next election in 2023.
Before the reversal, columnist Kelly Cryderman said the coal policy had become among the growing number of thorns in Premier Jason Kenney’s side as speculation grows over his future:
“But not all UCP members share the view that the party belongs to Mr. Kenney. Those Wildrose-camp party members are increasingly grumbling about a disconnect on a long list of items, including the coal policy, and pandemic public-health restrictions they view as far too onerous. There is also concern that what is viewed as the old PC sense of entitlement – from a bygone time when the province was rolling in cash – is creeping into the government culture.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.