Skip to main content

Ian Urquhart is executive director of Alberta Wilderness Association and Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta.

Albertans have been waiting more than a month for the province’s Coal Policy Committee to release the results of its public consultations, along with recommendations for the future of coal mining in Alberta. There shouldn’t be any doubt about what the public thinks. The chair of the committee signalled last fall that the public’s message was clear. Albertans, he said, are “strongly opposed” to coal.

Yet despite vocal public opposition, Premier Jason Kenney appears to be doubling down on his support for coal mining. “I believe in principle we can do it responsibility on a limited basis here in Alberta,” he told Global News in an interview that aired early last month. Recently, High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass reported that during a meeting with Mr. Kenney in January, the Premier “was very honest with me as to where he stood on that. As he says, he is full-on, an unapologetic supporter of the coal mining industry.” The Premier’s office hasn’t disputed that account.

What could account for the continued political enthusiasm for coal mining in Alberta?

Support for coal can’t be based on proof that open-pit coal mining is environmentally benign. The dangers that it poses to water quality and species at risk are the most publicized environmental concerns in the debate about whether new coal mines should be allowed anywhere on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

The failure of the Grassy Mountain project to secure provincial approval last year illustrates powerfully the inability of the industry to convince decision-makers that coal miners can eliminate these risks. The project’s owner, Benga Mining, was unable to convince regulators that it could mine coal without damaging surface water quality (through selenium and other types of water pollution) and without posing more dangers to threatened westslope cutthroat trout.

So is coal mining’s economic promise the reason it continues to find political support in Alberta? If coal were an economic winner, it might make sense for a pro-business Premier Kenney to want to charge ahead with an expansion of mining in the province. But that is not the case.

There’s no dispute that new mines, like most economic activity, will generate some jobs and revenue for the provincial government. But as the Grassy Mountain review panel concluded, Benga’s project wouldn’t generate enough jobs and taxes to outweigh its adverse environmental impact. Grassy’s proponent couldn’t convince the Joint Review Panel that the project could deliver more than “low to moderate positive economic impacts on the regional economy.”

What about imagining coal mining on a much grander scale than one or two mines? After all, coal has reached record highs in recent months and 11 separate new coal projects have been proposed for the eastern slopes of the Rockies. If the world is on the cusp of a golden age for metallurgical coal mining, and many of those projects go ahead, then maybe coal could be an economic champion for the province.

Yet imagining such a golden era is far-fetched. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2021 forecast that annual global coking coal production would rise to 971 million tonnes in 2030 from 940 million tonnes in 2020. The forecast was written to help inform last fall’s COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow and was based on the announced pledges of governments going into that event.

However, this increase would be momentary. By 2050, the IEA predicts that worldwide coking coal production will fall to 605 million tonnes – 36 per cent lower than 2020 production levels. And if the world addresses climate change more seriously, the IEA forecasts that global metallurgical coal production will fall to 406 million tonnes, a stunning 57 per cent lower than 2020.

There should be no question that climate change will accelerate the extent to which the steel and other metals-producing industries replace traditional coking coal technology with other, greener technologies. Addressing climate change requires a world with less coal mining.

If coal is an ecological and economic loser, maybe the Premier’s support for coal is all about helping the United Conservative Party win re-election next year? If so, public opinion data suggest his pro-coal position won’t deliver that either.

Last year, a poll released by Alberta public-relations firm ThinkHQ showed that new coal mining in Alberta was clearly unpopular with voters. More than two-thirds of people who were aware of the issue opposed new coal mines. Last October, a Nanos Research poll for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative found that 56 per cent of respondents were more likely to support a party that prohibited new coal mining. Coal isn’t an obvious – or likely – ticket for re-election in 2023.

But the relevant political prize here for Mr. Kenney isn’t re-election in 2023. It’s hanging on to his leadership of the United Conservative Party in the approaching April leadership review.

Nearly two-thirds of the current UCP caucus represents ridings outside of Calgary and Edmonton. The Nanos poll suggested there is more public support in rural Alberta for the coal industry than in the province’s metropolitan centres. Supporting illusions about coal’s value may speak to the Premier’s interest in currying favour with the rural majority heading into the leadership view. It is rural voters who may hold Mr. Kenney’s political future in their hands.

Political opportunism, not a commitment to the public good, may best account then for Premier Kenney’s enthusiasm for coal mining. But if Mr. Kenney stays on this course, he promises to sacrifice an iconic Canadian landscape to a declining industry. He also sacrifices an opportunity for a broader vision of the public interest to guide his government – a vision where people from different ideological positions come together. That kind of public conversation helped fuel Albertans’ opposition to coal. Ignoring it will only do more harm than good.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.