Calgary·Q & A

Answers to questions about Alberta's coal policy that, at this point, you're too afraid to ask

It's been nearly a year since Alberta's UCP government announced it was killing the province's 44-year-old Coal Development Policy, but what this means exactly is still confusing and unclear to many people.

Don't worry. It's a surprisingly complicated topic. We got you.

On the TV show Parks and Recreation, Chris Pratt's character admitted a secret: 'I don't know who Al Gore is, and at this point I'm too afraid to ask.' The line became an internet meme, giving permission for us all to ask basic questions about important topics. So no judgment here. Let's talk about coal in Alberta. (Left: Robson Fletcher/CBC, right: Parks and Recreation/NBC)

It's been eight months since Alberta's UCP government revealed it was killing the province's 44-year-old Coal Development Policy, but what this means exactly is still confusing and unclear to many people.

Even for those who were paying close attention last May, the change flew a little under the radar — at first.

The government announcement came via a Friday-afternoon press release, just before the May long weekend, and the full implications didn't dawn on journalists, environmentalists and people living in the affected areas until some time later.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Environment Minister Jason Nixon have since turned down repeated requests for interviews on the topic.

But plenty of other people have been talking about coal in Alberta — especially lately, after more recent developments again left many of us scratching our heads.

So no judgment here. Let's answer some of the basic questions many Albertans still have about this whole thing.

Wait. Isn't Alberta phasing out coal?

Alberta is indeed phasing out coal power.

The province's plan was to shutter its last coal-fired power plant by 2030 and rely entirely on natural gas, hydro, wind and solar to generate electricity.

This phase-out is actually well ahead of schedule and looks on track to happen by 2023

A coal plant near Hanna, Alta., is seen in this file photo. The province plans to close all its coal-fired power plants on the prairies or convert them to natural gas. (CBC)

But we're talking about a different kind of coal here. Known as metallurgical coal, it's the kind used to make steel.

You find this coal more often in the mountains, as opposed to the prairies, where most of the power-generating coal is mined.

And the plan is to export this metallurgical coal, largely to Asian markets.

British Columbia has been doing this for years. There are numerous mines in B.C. and many are right along the border with southwestern Alberta. Coal is that province's top export.

Alberta is now looking to mine more metallurgical coal from the mountains on this side of the border, which would be transported by rail to the west coast and shipped overseas.

How has Alberta's coal policy changed?

Back in 1976, Premier Peter Lougheed introduced the Coal Development Policy for Alberta.

This policy created four "categories" of land with different sets of rules when it comes to coal mining.

You can see each category in the interactive map below.

In Category 1 (red), all coal development was forbidden. This area compassed mostly the Rocky Mountains, spanning roughly 700 kilometres from the U.S. border north to what is now Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park.

In Category 2 (blue), open-pit mines were off-limits. This covered lands mostly to the east, including both mountains and foothills.

Categories 3 (green) and 4 (purple) generally trended further eastward, toward the plains, and saw fewer restrictions, but there are some limited sections of Category 4 land in the mountains, as well.

You can scroll and zoom on this interactive map. You can also click or tap on a coal lease (in grey) or mining licence (in orange) for more detail about it. There are additional layers showing parks and provincial recreation areas you can turn on or off by clicking on the '>>' button:

(Coal lease data via Alberta Energy, as of Dec. 16, 2020; parks data courtesy Wesley Barr.)

The UCP government says it won't change the rules in former Category 1 lands, where all types of mining remains forbidden.

It's in the former Category 2 lands where things stand to change the most.

There are three major components to these lands, with one chunk in southern Alberta, another in central Alberta, and a third in the northern Rockies. Together, they add up to a landmass the size of Jamaica.

The old policy allowed for some "limited exploration" in these areas provided it was "under strict control," but said "surface mining will not normally be considered" due to the nature of the landscape.

"This category contains lands in the Rocky Mountains and Foothills for which the preferred land or resource use remains to be determined, or areas where infrastructure facilities are generally absent or considered inadequate to support major mining operations," the old policy reads.

"In addition, this category contains local areas of high environmental sensitivity in which neither exploration or development activities will be permitted."

Those blanket rules restricting coal development are now gone, but the provincial government notes other environmental and land-use regulations remain in effect.

What is a 'coal lease?'

This is another term you might have heard a lot, but it can be confusing.

There are hundreds of coal leases scattered throughout Alberta. Many lease agreements have been in place for years, or even decades.

Even before the coal policy was rescinded, there were coal lease applications in Category 2 lands. This, according to Alberta Energy, was basically a first-right-of-refusal sort of thing.

Even though coal mining and exploration were heavily restricted in these areas, companies holding lease applications could apply for an exemption to the rules, although an industry association spokesman described this as a cumbersome process. Some companies might also have anticipated the policy eventually being altered or rescinded.

When the policy was rescinded, many lease applications were converted into full leases.

Within the former Category 2 lands, alone, there are roughly 420,000 hectares under lease, according to David Luff, who helped implement the province's coal policy in the 1970s.

It's important to note that a coal lease does not mean you can start mining right away. Companies still need to apply for a licence if they want to do coal exploration.

And there's a regulatory process to go through before opening a mine.

What's the deal with those 11 coal leases the province issued — then cancelled?

There was a small kerfuffle in December 2020 when the province held a public offering for new leases in southern Alberta, putting coal rights for 12 parcels of land up for sale. Some people feared this was throwing the doors open for new mines.

In reality, these parcels were relatively small slivers of land adjacent to existing coal leases.

One company, Montem Resources, ending up winning 10 of the 12 parcels, slightly expanding its existing leases in the region. Riversdale Resources, the Australian company behind the proposed Grassy Mountain mine near Crowsnest Pass, picked up one especially small parcel next to its existing leaseholds. And one parcel received no bids at all.

Luff said the 11 new leases that were issued totalled roughly 1,800 hectares — which is a fraction of one per cent of the total leases in former Category 2 lands. (Although several of the new leases won by Montem were actually on Category 4 lands — more on that below.)

Then, out of the blue, the province announced in January that it was cancelling all 11 leases.

Again, the announcement came via a late-afternoon press release. Again, the energy minister declined interview requests. And again, the government's move was interpreted by some people as being more significant than it actually was.

"Personally, I feel the government is trying to trick Albertans into believing that, in 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," Luff said.

"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."

Why has coal been in the news so much lately?

There's been a renewed interest recently thanks — in large part — to country musicians.

Yes, country musicians.

Corb Lund, Paul Brandt and Terri Clark have all taken up the cause, raising concerns about potential damage that new mines could do to the environment — and ranching operations — in the Rockies and Foothills.

More voices join Corb Lund's call to rethink Alberta's new direction on coal

2 years ago
Duration 3:13
Opposition to open-pit mining is starting to gain traction months after the Alberta government cancelled a decades old coal policy preventing development of land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Ranchers, municipalities and well-known Albertan musicians are sounding the alarm, asking the government to reconsider.

Lund, who has made music about cowboy culture and rural life for decades, released a video in which he calls the provincial government's plans a "terrible idea" in the short term and "especially" the long term.

He encouraged Albertans to speak out, and to reach out to their MLAs and MPs about the coal issue.

Lund also criticized the province for making the changes without public consultation.

"The policy seems to have changed pretty quietly," he said. "I don't think that's how you should govern."

What does this all mean for actual mining activity on the ground?

Since the coal policy was rescinded, no new mines have been approved.

But there has been some new exploratory work going on in former Category 2 areas north of Crowsnest Pass.

These photos were taken in January by Kevin Van Tighem, who lives in an area near the headwaters of the Oldman and Livingstone rivers in Southern Alberta.

Kevin Van Tighem took these photos in January 2021 after hiking up a road that was closed to public vehicles in the Dutch Creek area in Southern Alberta. (Kevin Van Tighem)

Van Tighem, a former superintendent of Banff National Park, said he had to hike for kilometres up a road that was closed to public vehicles to observe the work going on in the area.

"Evidently only the public is locked out; there was lots of signs of industrial traffic — logging and coal exploration — on a well-ploughed road," he wrote in a Facebook message.

"But the wildlife was certainly there. I saw tracks of a pack of wolves, a couple lynx, lots of coyotes, moose and deer and smaller creatures."

Which new mines are likely to open first? 

The Grassy Mountain project, just north of Blairmore, is one of the closest to becoming a reality.

If approved, it would see work resume on a previously disturbed mining site that was abandoned decades ago. This is a rare chunk of former Category 4 land right in the Rocky Mountains, so it had fewer restrictions in the past and was less affected by the removal of the coal policy.

The project was proposed back in 2013 and has been going through regulatory processes for years.

As one of the final steps in that process, weeks of public hearings were held from October to December and a joint federal-provincial review panel is now reviewing all the evidence before making a final decision.

There's another, similar project that could also be coming to the area relatively soon. Australia-based Montem Resources hopes to do more mining at Tent Mountain, just southwest of the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass. 

Like Grassy Mountain, this is a previously disturbed site that was mined long ago. It, too, sits on former Category 4 lands and was subject to less restriction under the old coal policy.

In a promotional video, the company says it expects to receive permission from the province to restart mining at Tent Mountain later this year and send its first shipments of coal out of the Port of Vancouver in early 2022.

It then aims to use cash from the Tent Mountain project to fund the development a larger coal-mining operation dubbed the Chinook project, which includes roughly 10,000 hectares in a long stretch of land north of Coleman.

Most of Montem's leases in this area are also on former Category 4 lands, but it also holds leases further north and to the east that used to be Category 2 under the old coal policy. In addition to Chinook, it is eyeing three other coal projects in this region, dubbed 4-Stack, Isola and Oldman.

Several other companies also hold coal leases in this area, mostly on former Category 2 lands, with the largest being Atrum Coal, another Australian firm. It aims to complete a pre-feasibility study on one of its projects in the region, dubbed Elan, later this year.

And all this is just what's going on in southern Alberta.

The largest chunk of former Category 2 land is actually in central Alberta, where several companies are also moving forward with plans for new mines.

One company, Valory Resources, recently told investors it now expects to be extracting coal from its leaseholds near Rocky Mountain House by the first quarter of 2023.

Who regulates all this?

It depends on the size of the project.

The Grassy Mountain project is being reviewed by a joint federal-provincial panel.

A sign in the Crowsnest Pass marking private property for Riversdale Resources, which is behind the Grassy Mountain mine proposal. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

Other projects may not receive the same type of scrutiny, however.

In its latest investor presentation, Valory Resources noted its Blackstone Project proposed for central Alberta "only requires provincial approval by the Alberta Energy Regulator."

As a result, the company told investors, the approval process could be more like 15 months versus four to five years if the feds were involved.

The presentation adds that the Alberta government is "supportive" of the project and includes a letter from Environment Minister Jason Nixon to the company's executive chairman pledging the government's commitment to "streamline policy and processes to bring greater certainty and stability to our investment climate and make Alberta open for business."

Where do things go from here?

As time goes on, we can expect more applications to regulators for both exploration and mining.

We can also expect more debate.

Environmental groups and nearby landowners have been speaking out against coal mines since last May, and they've been joined recently by country musicians and Albertans who are learning about all this for the first time and have concerns.

At the same time, supporters of coal mines have been getting more vocal, as well.

Lisa Sygutek, a municipal councillor in Crowsnest Pass, recently defended the area's proposed mining projects in an emotional interview on The Current.

She said she supports the Grassy Mountain project and the Tent Mountain project, but isn't convinced about additional mines beyond that.

She believes those two projects, alone, would be transformative for her community, where many people are struggling financially.

"The average wage for a person working in a mine, even just as a truck driver, is around $100,000 a year, and that's a huge boon in a community that, really, lives off of minimum wage," she said.

"We have a very, very poor community. Coal mining brings prosperity."

As more coal mining proposals come before regulators and enter the public consciousness, Albertans can expect to hear more of this kind of debate for months — and years — to come.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.