4th request made to federal government to join coal mine environmental review in Alberta

A fourth request has been made to the federal government to get involved in the environmental review of a coal mine proposed in the Rockies in southwestern Alberta.

Landowners, First Nations people and environmental groups are asking federal environment minister to intervene

Construction equipment is seen at left in a file photo in the mountains near Crowsnest Pass. A heavy truck is seen at right working at the Teck Elkford Operations open-pit coal mine in southeastern British Columbia, near the Alberta boundary. (CBC)

A fourth request has been made to the federal government to get involved in the environmental review of a coal mine proposed in the Rockies in southwestern Alberta.

Some landowners, a First Nations collective and environmental groups are asking federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to intervene in the hearing for Montem Resources' Tent Mountain project, about 20 kilometres west of the town of Coleman in the Crowsnest Pass.

It's the latest foray in an ongoing battle after Alberta's United Conservative Party government announced in May 2020 — with no public consultation — that it was killing the province's Coal Development Policy. That policy had been in place since the 1970s and made large swaths of the province's foothills and Rocky Mountains off-limits to open-pit coal mining.

In the wake of mounting opposition from municipalities, First Nations and other Albertans, the government partially reinstated the policy pending a public consultation process.

However, the government has repeatedly expressed its desire for a dramatically expanded industry in the region, which contains the headwaters for much of southern Alberta's drinking water, is home to threatened species and is an iconic part of the province's landscape.

The UCP government says the policy was outdated and redundant, and eliminating it would encourage substantial new investment in a province that has been struggling with persistent unemployment since the oil-price crash of 2015 and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. Some residents of former mining towns in southwestern Alberta have applauded the prospect of coal coming back, bringing high-paying jobs to a low-earning part of the province.

Others fear the move would create a high-level regulatory void, as the policy provided a holistic approach to protecting ecosystems, wildlife and Alberta's headwaters.

On Tuesday, the environmental law charity Ecojustice said in a news release it had submitted a designation request to the Impact Assessment Agency two days earlier, on behalf of:

  • The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta chapter.
  • The Niitsitapi Water Protectors (which includes the Kainai, Piikani and Siksika First Nations in Alberta and the Aamskapi Pikuni in Montana).
  • The Livingstone Landowners Group (which represents landowners and supporters of the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills area in southwestern Alberta).

They say it would affect many areas of federal responsibility, including aquatic habitats and species at risk. The mine would also straddle the B.C.-Alberta boundary, and the mine's planned output would be just shy of a threshold that would trigger a federal review.

"The Tent Mountain coal mine threatens clean water, the climate and Indigenous rights," Ecojustice lawyer David Khan said in the release.

"Straddling the B.C. and Alberta border, this mine is part of a suite of intensive coal development projects proposed for the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains — projects Ecojustice's clients fear will cause irreversible, devastating harm to this region. That's why, on behalf of our clients, Ecojustice is calling on Minister Wilkinson to designate Tent Mountain for an impact assessment. This process would allow the federal government to understand the project's full risks and make an informed decision on whether it is in Canadians' best interests to let the Tent Mountain coal project proceed."

Two of southern Alberta's largest First Nations, the Siksika and Kainai, and two local ranching families have already asked Ottawa to intervene in the project. So, too, have a member of Parliament, the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative, the Alberta Wilderness Association, and the B.C.-based conservation organization Wildsight, among others.

A public petition with 18,000 names has made a similar request in regard to all proposed coal projects in southern Alberta.

The petition, which was tabled in the House of Commons on March 23 by New Democrat MP Heather McPherson of Edmonton, urged the federal government to step in and consider the potential overall effects of Alberta's intent to expand its coal-mining industry.

Signed by 18,000 Canadians — 14,000 from Alberta — the petition says the province's plan has violated First Nations' rights and crosses into areas that Ottawa controls.

It asks for a combined assessment of proposed coal developments and exploration in southwestern Alberta and for a delay on any regulatory approvals for coal mines until that assessment is complete.

McPherson — Alberta's only non-Conservative MP — said the petition was a joint effort between her office and Latasha Calf Robe of the Niitsatapi Water Protectors, a member of the Kainai First Nation whose traditional lands would be affected by new mines.

With files from the CBC's Robson Fletcher