Alberta pauses future coal lease sales in Rocky Mountains, cancels 11 recent leases

Alberta's energy minister says the province will cancel 11 recently issued coal leases and pause future lease sales that would have allowed open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Province had faced opposition for decision to rescind decades-old policy

Alberta will cancel 11 recently issued coal mining leases in the Rocky Mountains, the provincial energy minister said Monday. (CBC)

Alberta's energy minister says the province will cancel 11 recently issued coal leases and pause future lease sales that would have allowed open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Sonya Savage said the province had listened to public concerns in recent days about its decision to rescind the decades-old policy.

"I want to be absolutely clear: Under the current terms, just as it was under the 1976 coal policy, coal leases do not allow for exploration, development or production without a comprehensive regulatory review. A lease-holder has no more right to set foot on lease property than any other Albertan. The same rules apply now, as before," Savage said in release late Monday afternoon.

"This pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected."

Savage said the decision won't impact coal projects currently under regulatory review.

The 11 recently issued leases also represent a small number of existing coal leases in the area, which are unaffected. 

Shown in black are 11 recently issued coal leases, which have now been cancelled by the province. Existing coal leases are shown in grey. Category 2 lands, where open-pit mining was banned from 1976 to 2020, are in blue. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Marlin Schmidt, the NDP's environment critic, said while the "backpedaling" from the government is a small victory for those against the policy, Alberta's scenic landscapes are still at risk.

"They still have not committed to reinstating the coal policy and to consulting before making further changes. Without these commitments, these precious wild spaces are still under threat," he said in an emailed statement. 

Schmidt asked if the cancellations create any financial obligations for the province.

"How much are taxpayers on the hook for?"

Only 0.002% of leased land cancelled

Katie Morrison, with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said there are more than 840,000 hectares still at risk and that the 11 cancelled leases represent only 0.002 per cent of leased land. 

"Whether or not the coal leases were existing or new, open-pit coal mines are now allowed in Alberta's headwaters where they previously were not," she said.

WATCH | Alberta's new approach to coal:

Alberta's new approach to coal

3 years ago
Duration 4:03
Alberta has reshaped a decades-old balance in the Rockies and Foothills, rescinding its 1976 Coal Development Policy, opening the door to more open-pit mines in the mountains.

The closest coal project to becoming reality currently before the Alberta Environmental Regulator (AER) is Grassy Mountain. The open pit mine, which would be located roughly seven kilometres north of Blairmore, Alta., could produce an estimated 4.5 million tonnes of coal annually over 23 years.

It would create nearly 400 full-time jobs, but many fear it could pollute nearby waters affecting millions downstream, destroy endangered species' habitats, and damage cattle-grazing areas. 

More than 100,000 signatures had been collected as of Monday on two petitions opposing the United Conservative government's move to rescind the coal policy. 

One of the more high-profile voices of opposition is country singer Corb Lund, who posted a video criticizing the government and saying the plans endanger the province's future.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon said in an open letter to Albertans on Monday evening that the province's environmental protections remain strong. He said since the policy was rescinded this year, no new project applications have been submitted to the AER and that all applications will go through the same review process.

"I have lived in the area for most of my life … I have a personal investment in ensuring [the eastern slopes] are protected," he wrote.

A hearing had been set for Tuesday in Calgary's Court of Queen's Bench on the issue, where the province will seek to dismiss a request from ranchers for a judicial review and, if it's not dismissed, consolidate that judicial review application with two others filed by First Nations. The groups have argued the government is required under law to consult before it changes a land-use plan.

A spokesperson for the energy minister said it will be up to the court to decide if Monday's announcement will have any impact on that proceeding.

Calgary city council also heard Monday from city administration that it was not consulted on the province's decision to change the policy, which affects the region's watershed. 

With files from Robson Fletcher and The Canadian Press