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Montem Resources exploration of renewable energy project in southwestern Alberta raises questions

Australia-based Montem Resources has announced it intends to explore a renewable energy project instead of a coal mine on its Tent Mountain site located in southwestern Alberta, leaving some to question the companies' intent. 

Political climate surrounding coal has forced the company to seek alternatives, CEO says

An aerial view of Tent Mountain in southwestern Alberta, which was the site of an open-pit coal mine that was active decades ago but has since been abandoned. (Montem Resources)

Australia-based Montem Resources has announced it intends to explore a renewable energy project instead of a coal mine on its Tent Mountain site located in southwestern Alberta, leaving some to question the company's intent. 

The proposed project would include an offsite wind farm that would pump water to an upper reservoir on Tent Mountain with the hydro-electric power that is generated used to create green hydrogen in the lower reservoir. Any excess power would be sold to the electricity grid.

Montem Resources, which describes itself as a steel-making coal and renewable energy development company, had previously attempted to re-open an open-pit metallurgical coal mine at Tent Mountain, which was closed in 1983. 

The proposed development is located in the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta's Rocky Mountains near the B.C. border.

The company is still pursuing approval for the mining project at Tent Mountain while it explores the feasibility of the renewable project, a move environmentalists say casts doubt on its re-brand as a green player.

"I think if Montem was truly committed to a renewable energy future, [they] would pull the plug on their coal mining application, and they simply haven't done that," said Fraser Thomson, a lawyer for the environmental charity Ecojustice.

Thomson noted that a project of that size would need a comprehensive impact assessment and consultation with neighbouring First Nations. 

Peter Doyle, CEO and managing director of Montem Resources, said the company is in the early stages of talks with the Piikani First Nation to construct the off-site wind farm on their land. 

At the moment, Doyle said the company is focused on assessing the investment potential of the renewable energy project and that it will decide in late June or early July whether to move forward with it or the coal mine. 

"We're re-imagining our assets and in fact, by doing so, we're re-imagining the future of energy in Alberta," said Doyle. 

Intentions questioned

Doyle said the company was forced to look at alternatives after facing "significant headway" from the provincial and federal government on the development of a coal mine. 

Plans on the mine were stalled last summer after federal former environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson ordered it undergo a federal impact assessment

Norma Dougall is the acting president of the Livingstone Landowners Group, which has opposed previous mining projects in the region. She said the Tent Mountain area is environmentally sensitive and that the proposed hydro facilities' impacts on water supply are a concern.

The headwaters of the Crowsnest River are close to the proposed site. The river flows into the Oldman watershed which is already facing high water demand.

Blairmore is one of a handful of communities that make up the the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

"From our understanding, about every unit of hydrogen that's produced requires approximately nine units of water, and that is water is never returned to the system," said Dougall.

"So if they're planning to use substantial amounts of water to produce the hydrogen from the upper reaches of the Crowsnest River, that could significantly drop the stream flow during dry periods in the summer or during drought years."

Because the renewable energy project would require the use of a former open-pit mine as a reservoir, Dougall also wonders about the potential contamination of the Crowsnest River and the Oldman watershed as sediments in the water body are disturbed. 

"We're not thrilled with the idea because we don't have much trust ... that either [Montem Resources] or I guess really the Alberta government has Albertan's best interests at heart."

Lack of work in region

Lucas Michalsky is a rancher and local business owner in Blairmore, a municipality in the Crowsnest Pass. Many family members work in nearby mines. 

He said that over his lifetime, he's watched the surrounding area change drastically because of the lack of work.

"I got to hear all these stories from my dad and my grandpa about when [Crowsnest Pass] was vibrant, you could walk down the street and there'd be all these open boutiques and stores and you could buy stuff," said Michalsky. 

"We've really lost every sort of industry we've ever had."

Michalsky said he'd prefer to see the coal mine proceed instead of the renewable energy project because it will offer more jobs — 190 positions compared to just 50, according to Doyle. But steps forward on either project would make a difference in the community, he said.

Michalsky added that he doesn't want further environmental degradation either way, and that an attractive aspect of the Tent Mountain project is that it wouldn't involve the creation of a new industrial site. 

"You know, times change and hey, if there's a better way to produce energy, by all means, let's do it," he said. 

"It's an old coal mine that's still sitting there. We might as well use it."

With files from Rick Donkers

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