'I feel the government is trying to trick Albertans': Former civil servant on sudden coal lease cancellations

David Luff, who helped implement Alberta's Coal Development Policy in 1976, says the UCP government isn't being forthright about what it's now doing with coal in the province.

David Luff helped implement Alberta's 1976 Coal Development Policy, which the UCP rescinded last year

File photos of coal mining operations in Wyoming, at left, British Columbia, at right. Alberta has cancelled a policy that had been in place since 1976 restricting open-pit coal mining in wide swaths the Rockies and Foothills. (Matthew Brown/Associated Press, Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The Alberta government publicly offered 11 chunks of land in the mountains north of Crowsnest Pass as new coal leases back in December, then suddenly announced on Monday it was cancelling those leases.

The news caught many Albertans by surprise, and some critics celebrated what they thought, briefly, was a major victory in their opposition to open-pit mining in the region.

But these areas, it turns out, were relatively small compared with the wide swaths of pre-existing coal leases in the area. 

It all relates to the UCP government's decision last year to rescind Alberta's 44-year-old Coal Development Policy.

The size of the leases was not part of the press release issued by Energy Minister Sonya Savage at 4:52 p.m. on Monday, and Savage declined a request for an interview.

But David Luff did agree to an interview.

He's a resource policy consultant and a former civil servant who helped implement Alberta's 1976 Coal Policy as part of the Progressive Conservative government of premier Peter Lougheed.

He joined Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Tuesday morning to discuss this latest twist in Alberta's approach to coal.

You can listen to their conversation here or read an abridged version of it below.

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 following transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

David Gray: What did you think when you heard this announcement? 

David Luff: It struck me as being a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the government, and that the government really doesn't know what it's doing in regard to coal leasing and coal exploration in the eastern slopes [of the Rockies] as a result of rescinding the [coal] policy.

It's unprecedented for a minister of the Crown to issue coal agreements or coal leases in one month and next month take them back. 

DG:  I want to be clear about this. This does not affect all coal leases issued under this new policy brought in by the government. So which ones can still go ahead as of now? 

DL: If we're talking about Category 2 lands [where open-pit mining used to be banned under the previous Coal Development Policy] … that represents about 1.5 million hectares of land in the eastern slopes. And within that landmass, 420,000 hectares are under lease already.

The agreements that the minister issued in December, those 11 leases total about 1,800 hectares. So less than 0.5 per cent all the leases in the Category 2 area.

So that only affects those small — very small — leases that were issued in December. The existing leases that were there before the sale in December continue to be there. And the coal companies can explore those lands once they receive approval from the energy regulator.

A gate blocks access to a newly constructed road on public land north of Crowsnest Pass that was being explored for coal in January 2021. (Kevin Van Tighem)

DG: So, when the minister says that this is in reaction to the public opposition to coal developments in the eastern slopes of the Rockies, is that a fair reflection of this action?

DL: No. Personally, I feel the government is trying to trick Albertans into believing that taking back these leases, that somehow the eastern slopes and foothills are now once again protected from mountaintop-removal coal mining. And that's not the case. It's, in my view, a desperate attempt to try to win back the trust of Albertans when it comes to protecting one of our most sacred areas of the of the province. So it's just not reality.

DG: Mr. Luff, you used to be inside the system. You worked in government when the original coal policy went into effect. Can you remind us what that did for this province? 

DL: What it did was provide — which all industries look for, and the public looks for — a clarity and certainty and predictability.

The No. 1 priority in the eastern slopes was the protection and maintenance of watersheds, because the eastern slopes are the headwaters of all the streams and rivers that flow east across Alberta that provide us with drinking water, water for agricultural purposes and so on.

Corb Lund raises concerns about open coal mining in Alberta's Rockies

2 years ago
Duration 6:14
The Alberta musician is lending his voice to the fight against coal policy changes implemented by the UCP government last year. (Video: Corb Lund/Facebook)

It also provided the coal industry with clarity and certainty about where it could go and how it could operate. So the industry knew, in the Category 2 lands, if there was ever to be coal mining, it would have to be underground. And they conducted their exploration programs knowing that that was the case.

In the other categories, Category 3 and 4, underground surface mining and exploration were all allowed. And in the Category 1 lands, no exploration and no development. So the industry knew that.

DG: As you point out, after 44 years, those rules clearly changed.… Is there any way to close that door now or is there any sign you see that the door has potential for closing? Or does this press release frankly do nothing on that effect?

DL: The minister's press release talks about a pause. We don't know what that pause is for. We don't know how long the pause will go on. So the government needs to come out and be very clear about what that pause is going to be all about, and how Albertans will be engaged going forward.

So, to close the door and to have a new foundation from which to begin, the minister needs — today — to direct the Alberta Energy Regulator to stop accepting and issuing any new coal exploration permits on those [former] Category 2 lands.

And, for the existing permits that are already there on the existing coal leases, the minister also needs to direct the Alberta Energy Regulator that there be no further activities on those existing permits until this pause is over and that Albertans have an opportunity to provide their issues and concerns to government. 

DG: The reason this has tweaked public ire is because we're talking about some pristine and iconic landscapes in this province. That's why you're hearing people like [country musicians] Paul Brandt and Corb Lund and Terri Clark and others joining the opposition.

DG: And there's a group of ranchers going to court today to apply for a judicial review of the new coal policy. Do they have it within their power, or are they going down an avenue that might change this? 

DL: So I'm aware that some ranchers are in court. They feel that they were not consulted and they have a legal case to make. I'm not fully informed about what the court will ultimately make a decision on.

From my perspective, the rescinding of the policy, and the way it was done, was morally and ethically wrong. The Government of Alberta did not consult with Albertans, who would be affected by the removal of the policy. The only consultation the government did was with the Coal Association of Canada and Australian coal companies.

So that's morally and ethically wrong, in my books.