Alberta NDP proposes legislation to stop coal exploration in Rockies

The bill, which is unlikely to make it through the legislature, is a response to the angry backlash against the cancellation of Alberta's 1976 coal policy, a move that opened the previously protected areas of the Rockies to open pit mining.

The bill is in response to public backlash over the UCP government's changes to provincial coal policy

Coal mine
Last year, the province rescinded its long-standing coal policy that protected vast stretches of the Rocky Mountains. The NDP wants new legislation to reinstate protection and draft new rules. (Istock)

Alberta's Opposition NDP will introduce a bill in the legislature that would put an immediate stop to all coal exploration and drilling in the Rocky Mountains, prevent the Alberta Energy Regulator from issuing approvals and water permits for coal exploration, prohibit coal mining in some areas of the province and pause any development in others pending creation of a regional plan. 

Opposition leader Rachel Notley said the bill "will cut through the trickery and the dishonesty of the Kenney government on this issue, and it will ensure that the eastern slopes, and their watersheds, are protected by law from the disfigurement and the pollution of coal mining." 

The bill is a response to the angry backlash against the cancellation of Alberta's 1976 coal policy, a move that opened previously protected areas of the Rockies to open pit mining.

Those changes were introduced by the UCP government on the Friday of the May long weekend last year without consultation. Months later, the government walked back that unilateral move after public opposition, and it has since initiated a consultation process focused on developing Alberta's metallurgical coal industry. 

Halt on exploration

The NDP's proposed legislation would immediately stop drilling and exploration activity — including road building — in the eastern slopes, which started after the government rescinded the coal policy. It would not affect currently operating mines. 

"Let's remember that irreparable harm is happening in the Rocky Mountains, and their watershed, as we speak, due to coal exploration activity," said Notley. 

"If the UCP wanted a good faith consultation, all of these activities would be halted until Albertans told the government whether they wanted coal mining or not. But that's not what the government did. This consultation is nothing more than a delay tactic to run the clock while full exploration continues."

The NDP plan would permanently prohibit coal mining in so-called Category 1 and Category 2 lands.

Unlikely to pass

The proposed legislation stands little chance of making it through the legislature, or even making it to the floor of the legislature. It first has to pass through a private member's bill committee established by the current government. 

No bill proposed by the NDP has made it through that committee, Notley said on Wednesday. 

"I think the UCP MLAs on that committee should be mindful that Albertans have completely run out of patience for more trickery and more dishonesty on this issue," she said. 

"If those MLAs want to ignore their constituents' wishes and keep pushing Jason Kenney's coal mining plans, keep endangering the water supply that farms and ranching communities rely on, then they should have the backbone to stand up in the legislature and explain themselves for taking that position."

Government push for mining

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 coal 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.

With files from The Canadian Press