Edmonton

Alberta announces committee to consult public on future coal mining policy

Following through on a promise made last month, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage on Monday named a five-member committee to consult the public about the future of coal mining in the province.

Committee chair Ron Wallace promises 'fiercely independent' process

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society was disappointed there was no environmental advocate named to the newly minted five-member committee to consult the public on any future coal mining policy. (Bighorn Mining)

Following through on a promise made last month, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage on Monday named a five-member committee to consult the public about the future of coal mining in the province.

"My goal is to ensure that the process is thorough and that it meets the needs of Albertans," Savage said in announcing the four-man, one woman committee. 

The committee will be allowed to produce its own terms of reference and committee chair Ron Wallace, a former National Energy Board member, insisted it would be arm's length from the government.

"I think you should understand that this is an independent process that will be fiercely independent, and very, very focused on listening to the views of Alberta and making sure that the government has a fair understanding of those views," Wallace said. 

Savage also announced the launch of a survey that she said will help the committee design and conduct the consultation process. The survey will remain open until April 19.

In response to a reporter's question, Savage declined to commit to implementing the committee's recommendations, saying she didn't wish to "prejudge" the outcome.

Coal policy rescinded without consultation

Monday's announcement represents the latest step in a strategic retreat on coal mining from the Alberta government. 

In May 2020, without any public consultation, Savage rescinded a 1976 Lougheed-era policy that provided blanket protection from coal mining to the eastern slopes of the Rockies. 

The government said the policy was outdated and redundant and it said its elimination would encourage significant new investment.

It announced it was revoking the policy through a news release on a Friday afternoon before the May long weekend.

At that time, Savage said removing the policy was a "common-sense" decision aimed at creating "certainty and flexibility for industry."

Environmentalists however, said the policy's removal would create a regulatory void because the Lougheed policy had provided a holistic approach to protecting ecosystems, wildlife and the headwaters of rivers that provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands of Albertans.

In February this year, Savage reinstated some of the policy and promised to consult with the public about any future changes. 

The reversal came after growing pressure from municipal councils, First Nations, environmentalists, country music stars including Corb Lund and citizens, who dotted their front-yards across the province with signs opposing coal mining in the Rockies. 

One mine is currently under review and vast areas of the mountains have been leased for exploration.

Last week, Atrum Coal, an Australian mining company, announced it was pausing its Elan project, just north of Grassy Mountain, pending the province's consultation process.

The mine is located on Category 2 lands under the province's 1976 coal policy, which prohibited open mining in these areas.  

Critics want coal mining banned

Savage said she had not named any representatives from an environmental group to the committee just as she had not appointed a coal-industry representative.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society have been fierce critics of the coal policy reversal.

The society's Katie Morrison said she was disappointed there was no environmental advocate named to the committee.

She said there also should have been representatives from agriculture, recreation and other groups who could be affected by future policy.

Morrison said she is concerned that mining companies will continue their exploration activities in the mountains even as the consultation is underway. 

"They will be building roads, building new drill pads and damaging this landscape before we have decided the future of it because the consultation will end after the summer exploration season," she said.

"And that, to me, continues to cast doubt on the entire process."

One of the committee members named Monday is Bill Trafford, president of the Livingstone Landowners Group, which represents landowners along the southeastern slopes of the mountains. 

Landowner Bobbi Lambright was pleased to see representation from her group on the committee but she said there was "such a loss of trust at this point" in the government's intentions. 

"But I did hear the minister say that they want to hear what Albertans have to say and if that means no coal, then hopefully that is what will be represented in the policy," she said.

Focus on coal resource development, not land use

University of Calgary environmental law professor Nigel Bankes said it is clear the focus of this consultation is to obtain advice on a coal development policy rather than on land use in the Rocky Mountains. 

"The government wants to continue to commit to some level of coal development, so I guess to that extent I sort of see a bias in the way that (the consultation) is set up," Bankes said. 

"And it will be unlikely for a minister of energy to think that certain energy resources should be ruled out as part of the future industrial development of the province." 

NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt told a news conference following the announcement his party would be introducing a private member's bill next week that, if passed, would halt all coal mining in the eastern slopes. 

"We have heard loud and clear from the people of Alberta that that is what they want to see," Schmidt said. 

He said he hopes the UCP government will allow the bill to be debated in the legislature but that is unlikely given the government's past uniformly negative response to NDP legislative initiatives. 

In addition to Ron Wallace and Bill Trafford, the committee includes: Fred Bradley, the former environment minister under Premier Peter Lougheed; Natalie Charlton, the executive director of the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce; and Eric North Peigan, a member of the Piikani First Nation who operates a teepee camp that provides an immersive cultural experience for tourists.

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