Alberta keeps decades-old coal policy in place, 4 advanced projects to continue regulatory process

After months of consultation and nearly two years after it cancelled a policy that protected parts of the Rockies from coal development, the provincial government says it will keep a 1976 coal policy in place.

Future projects will need to go through public consultation and receive legislative approval

Energy Minister Sonya Savage received two reports from a coal policy committee in late December. On Friday, the minister discussed the findings of those reports and the future of coal mining in Alberta. (CBC, Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Nearly two years after it cancelled a decades-old policy that protected parts of the Rockies from coal development, the provincial government says it will keep that policy in place.

That means that any coal development and exploration activities in those areas of the Rockies are blocked for the time being.

Restrictions will remain in place until the province updates its framework around how it manages its land and natural resources, which is referred to as land use planning. Such moves would require legislative approval and public consultation.

The new ministerial order, taking effect immediately, emerged after a panel spent months consulting on coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.

Two reports that emerged out of that work were released today.

"We accept, in principle, the findings of the committee, and we are well-positioned to act on their recommendations," Energy Minister Sonya Savage said during a press conference on Friday.

"We have heard concerns of Albertans loud and clear."

Four advanced coal projects approved prior to the rescinding of the 1976 policy will be allowed to proceed, though the future of some of those projects — like the Grassy Mountain coal project, recently rejected by the federal government — face uncertain futures.

A sign marks the road to Grassy Mountain, where a coal mine was to be developed. Despite being rejected by the federal government, Alberta still considers it to be an advanced coal project so it can continue through the full court process. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The other three projects allowed to proceed are Tent Mountain, the Vista coal mine and the Mine 14 project from Summit Coal.

"That doesn't mean they will be approved. Every one of those projects would have to undergo a very extensive regulatory process with a joint review panel process with the federal government," Savage said.

"Companies will have to make decisions on whether or not they would proceed."

Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said the move Friday "is a really big step forward," but added it came with a caveat.

"They've kind of kicked the decision down the road to the land use planning process. So it's on pause until land use plans are complete for each region," Morrison said.

"But within that land use planning process, the question of whether coal can or can't go forward in that landscape will be reopened for discussion again."

The province will also expand restrictions on exploration under the 1976 policy. The halt of coal exploration in Category 2 lands will now expand to include exploration and development in Category 3 and 4 lands.

Activities for active mines are also allowed to proceed.

Panel findings

The panel received more than 1,000 emailed documents and 170 written submissions, and held more than 70 meetings with various parties. Its findings come after nearly two years of contentious debate.

In its 45-page report, the five-member panel wrote that 85 per cent of Albertans indicated that they were "not at all confident" that coal exploration and development are properly regulated.

"Broadly, Albertans consider that coal exploration and development should only be allowed on lands that conform to regional or subregional plans completed under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act," the report reads.

Ron Wallace, a permanent member of what was known as the National Energy Board, led a five-member panel focused on coal mining in the province. Two reports emerging out of that work were released Friday. (CBC News)

The panel was led by Ron Wallace, a permanent member of what was known as the National Energy Board, and included a former Alberta environment minister, a member of the Piikani Nation, the president of the Livingstone Landowners' Group and the executive director of the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce.

"It's my view, and the view of the committee, that this government has heard the recommendations of the committee," Wallace said during the press conference.

The panel recommended that Alberta's new coal policy include modernized land use guidance combined with enforceable planning for the entire eastern slopes.

In a release, the Opposition NDP said the UCP had "left the door open" by issuing a ministerial order that the minister could "rescind in secret at any time."

"The UCP has already proven they can't be trusted to protect our mountains," said NDP energy critic Kathleen Ganley in the release.

"They already opened up the Rockies for open pit coal mining with the stroke of a pen, and they could do it again under this plan."

1976 coal policy

In the spring of 2020, with no public consultation, the Alberta government scrapped a policy limiting coal development established in 1976 by then-Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.

That provoked outcry from ranchers, First Nations, environmentalists and musicians like Corb Lund, among others.

Some Albertans, like those living in the historic coal community of Crowsnest Pass, hoped mining could benefit the local economy.

Responding to the mounting public opposition, the province announced in February 2021 that it would reinstate the 1976 policy and commit to "consult on modernized policy," leading up to Friday's release of the reports.

With files from The Canadian Press