Stephen Legault is a political and communications strategist who lives in Canmore, Alta. His 15th book, Taking a Break from Saving the World, is available from Rocky Mountain Books.
Imagine a place you didn’t have to drag your teenaged kid to, but rather they anticipated visiting – indeed, even asking frequently, “When are we going next?” Imagine that it’s not a shopping mall, but a series of wide, tree-lined valleys in the southern Rocky Mountains, cut through with not one but two world-class trout streams, with grizzly bears, cougars and wolverines animating the landscape.
The Livingstone and Oldman River headwaters is such a place. It’s a region southwest of Calgary where limestone ramparts form a stone wall along the continental divide, and where rolling green hills dip down into jagged canyons running with clear, icy water. For my 14-year-old son, this is fly-fishing nirvana.
Today, however, our slice of heaven is at risk.
For years, Australian-owned Riversdale Resources has pursued plans for the Grassy Mountain mine, a massive coal project in the region that could have devastating effects on water, wildlife and the natural paradise that for many symbolizes southern Alberta’s heritage. Atrum Coal, another Australian company, is exploring the area known as Cabin Ridge and has its sights set on the locale for open-pit mining. And on June 1, Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government made it easier for these firms to achieve their goals by scrapping the 1976 Coal Development Policy, which was put in place by former premier Peter Lougheed to safeguard the fragile Eastern Slopes and the water they provide to Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The Livingstone River is by no means pristine; it’s been marred by logging, off-highway vehicle use and general government neglect for decades. Still, this is the sort of country people think about when they reflect on Alberta: cattle ranching, fly fishing, family camping trips and prairie grasslands rising up into soaring peaks. And now Mr. Kenney is working to systematically undo any remaining obstacles to coal mining in the Rockies.
The torpedoing of Alberta’s coal policy is the most recent – but by no means the only – casualty in the government’s war on nature.
First, Mr. Kenney dismantled the province’s plan to tackle climate change; he then announced the closure or privatization of nearly a quarter of Alberta’s recreation areas and campgrounds. New protections enacted under the previous short-lived NDP government, such as the creation of the Castle Wildland Provincial Park, are being undermined in an effort to reopen spaces to off-highway vehicles before the ink is dry on management plans.
The NDP government had also ordered the phase-out of thermal coal – the kind used to generate electricity – in 2015, but even though it’s just as dangerous to human health and our climate, steel-making coal (also called metallurgical or coking coal) was given a pass, largely because the market for it is overseas. The greenhouse-gas emissions, therefore, would be measured against foreign levels and not our own. This omission allowed companies such as Riversdale to stake claims and explore for metallurgical coal; the Grassy Mountain project is now at the stage of a federal environment assessment. But with the coal policy out of the way, some of the final barriers to new, large-scale coal mines have been eliminated, and the result could be devastating for wildlife, water and the people who love these landscapes.
A peek at British Columbia‘s Elk River Valley offers Albertans a glimpse of the potential ruin that could await. There, Vancouver-based mining giant Teck has been digging into the same metallurgical coal deposit for decades, leaving a legacy of mountain-top removal, poisoned fish and denuded rivers that has sparked international condemnation. A recent study on the Fording River, at the headwaters of the Elk, shows that due to selenium poisoning from mining waste, 90 per cent of the rivers’ threatened Westslope cutthroat trout population has been destroyed. The same failed techniques for controlling this poisoning in B.C. are being proposed for the Alberta projects.
Yes, there are profits to be made from mining coal. If there weren’t, foreign-owned companies wouldn’t be scrambling to strip Alberta of its natural wealth and beauty, and Mr. Kenney wouldn’t be making it so easy for them to do it. And it is true that our heritage in this region includes a history of coal mining in the Crowsnest Pass. But new coal-mining projects are anachronistic. Efforts to develop cleaner alternatives – such as hydrogen – for stoking furnaces used in steelmaking are well under way. And with many jurisdictions looking forward to greener economic alternatives as we emerge from the first wave of a global pandemic, how well can Alberta fare if it is constantly looking backward as it navigates its economic future?
As the UCP escalates its assault on the environment, many Albertans simply don’t know where to turn for help, and as a result shrug in disbelief and defeat. There is one 14-year-old, however, who knows all too well what is at stake. When we set a fly to drift on the clear waters of the Livingstone River, in the shadow of Cabin Ridge, we’ll wonder when exactly did we sell our province’s natural bounty – and future – for a lump of coal.
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