Environmental concerns top economics in Alberta coal survey, results show

The environmental impact of coal mining was identified as the top issue when discussing a new policy to regulate development, with nearly two-thirds of survey respondents saying the economic benefits were "not important at all."

Two-thirds of respondents said economic benefits 'not important at all'

A small group of protesters who oppose proposed coal mining in the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains gathered at the Monolith sculpture in Maycroft, Alta., on March 14, 2021. (Lorraine Hjalte)

Newly released results from a three-week survey about Alberta coal mining show respondents ranked environmental concerns much higher than its economic impact, with about two-thirds saying the latter was not at all important.

While not a question-by-question breakdown, the survey results released Monday offer a more complete look at the level of public opinion around coal development.

The environmental impact of coal mining was the top-ranked issue in the survey, which received 25,000 responses before it closed last month.

Economic impact ranked last out of eight possible responses. 

The preliminary results prompted a government decision at the end of April to halt coal exploration across a large, ecologically sensitive range of the Rockies and foothills. At the time, the government noted the survey respondents were concerned about the location of coal development and its environmental impacts. 

About eight per cent of respondents described the economic benefits as being very important, while another 28 per cent described the benefits as somewhat or moderately important, according to results posted to the government website on Monday.

Survey design criticized

The remainder of the survey's respondents said the economic benefits are "not important at all."

The survey's design was criticized by some who noted the majority of questions asked for a respondent's familiarity with coal development, not their opinion about it.

The survey's second question asked about the economic benefits of coal mining. There was no question asking specifically about the environmental impact.

More than 90 per cent of respondents said there are areas of Alberta that are unsuitable for coal exploration, while 30 per cent said some exploration may be appropriate, such as at existing mine sites.

More than 85 per cent of those who responded said they were not at all confident that Alberta's regulation of coal mining was safe, efficient, orderly or environmentally responsible. 

Respondents detailed concerns with coal mining's impacts on water, air, environment, health, wildlife and their ability to enjoy outdoor activities. Issues were raised about liability for clean-up and contamination. 

The Teck Elkview Operations open-pit coal mine in southeastern British Columbia, as seen from Mount Erickson. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

In February, Alberta reinstated its 1976 coal policy that keeps open-pit coal mines out of large parts of the Eastern Slopes after intense pushback to the government's decision to rescind the policy without consultation.

A month later, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced the government had opened the online survey and struck a committee intended to help lead public engagement on a new coal policy. The committee's mandate has been criticized as overly narrow, with no mention of water, environment or land use in its terms of reference.

Savage has insisted no topic will be ruled out-of-scope. 

The committee opened submissions for technical written briefings on Monday as it begins its consultations. Monday's update says the committee intends to gather written briefs and presentations on topics including mine technology, economic impacts of coal development and its environmental and social effects.

The committee says it expects to release more details soon on engagement activities, such as roundtable discussions and input from Indigenous communities. 

The committee's final report is due Nov. 15.