Science·What on Earth?

Why the reversal of a decades-old coal policy sparked controversy in Alberta

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the contentious reversal on coal mining in Alberta and why some First Nations have a big plastic problem.

Also: Some First Nations have a huge plastic problem, thanks to boil-water advisories

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Why the reversal of a decades-old coal policy sparked controversy in Alberta
  • B.C. utilities do battle on Twitter over emissions
  • First Nation wants Ottawa to help clean up plastic waste left by 27-year boil water advisory

Why the reversal of a decades-old coal policy sparked controversy in Alberta

When the Alberta government quietly rescinded a 1976 coal policy protecting the eastern slopes of the Rockies, it kicked off mass outcry. Now, as the public awaits new policy, some argue it should exclude new mines.

In 1976, when then-Alberta premier Peter Lougheed enacted a policy limiting coal development, he safeguarded parts of the iconic Rocky Mountains. That land is now at the centre of a provincial debacle over the future of mining. 

Balancing the coal industry and the integrity of the beloved mountains was at the heart of Lougheed's decision, said David Luff, who worked in Lougheed's government. 

In late May 2020, however, the Alberta government quietly scrapped the 1976 policy, allowing companies to explore and apply for leases on land in the Rockies that was previously off-limits. 

With no public consultation, "the government betrayed the trust that Albertans had given it to manage our resources," said Luff.

Luff helped devise that original policy and said leading up to its rollout, the province asked Albertans about the Eastern Slopes, mountains stretching from the U.S. border about 800 kilometres north to central Alberta. The landscape is often used as a backdrop in film and TV, with cattle grazing in the foreground and soaring peaks in the distance. 

The top priorities for the public were keeping the mountain landscape intact for recreation, tourism and, most importantly, watersheds. 

"Whether it's Edmonton or Lethbridge or Red Deer or Calgary, that's where all our drinking water comes from," said Luff.

The majority of coal mined in and exported from Alberta is metallurgical, used to make steel. 

The 1976 policy defined land largely by how sensitive it would be to development. Category 1, near the Alberta-B.C. border, was in protected areas that precluded mining, including national parks like Banff and Jasper. 

In Category 2, a proposal for an open-pit coal mine required permission from the province before submitting it to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Effectively, this created a hurdle that wasn't worthwhile for most companies. 

Categories 3 and 4 — largely farther east of 1 and 2 — were open to mining, with some restrictions. 

For Susan Douglas-Murray, the cancellation of the policy became clear in subtle ways at first. Not far from her home in the municipality of Crowsnest Pass, where she and her husband run fly fishing tours in the nearby mountain rivers, she started to see local back roads being closed off and work trucks passing through. 

When she and others realized the activity was from mining companies, "people were just up in arms and trying to figure out a way to say 'no,'" said Douglas-Murray. 

She called and wrote to politicians, joining opponents with concerns about the impacts of mining, including the destruction of ecosystems, potential loss of well-loved landscapes and selenium pollution. The outcry was fierce across Alberta, and included ranchers; country musicians, including Corb Lund; Indigenous groups; conservationists; outdoorsy city-dwellers and more. 

Last February, this opposition spurred the provincial government to reinstate the 1976 policy, and eventually press pause on coal exploration in April 2021. Energy Minister Sonya Savage also hired an independent committee to ask Albertans about the future of coal mining. 

"We queried Albertans on their understanding and views about existing policies regarding coal development in the province," said committee chair Ron Wallace. 

He and his team submitted two reports to the province in December 2021. One summarizes public feedback, including 176 written submissions, 67 meetings (virtual and in-person) and more than 1,000 emails and letters, said Wallace. The second has recommendations on the future of coal policy. 

The reports aren't public, and Wallace cannot comment on them. In a response to CBC, the Alberta Ministry of Energy gave no indication of when they will be released. 

"To still not know what the coal committee has suggested is extremely upsetting," said Douglas-Murray. "I think it's essential that [the reports] be revealed pronto."

Of the submissions available online, one from the town of High River — signed by two dozen other municipalities and two First Nations — argues for an end to new coal leases. 

According to a government survey, 85 per cent of Albertans have concerns about how "safe" and "environmentally responsible" coal mining is. 

Still, there is some support. The Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, for example, submitted a letter outlining why it thinks new mining operations should break ground, including on lands previously off-limits. Douglas-Murray opposes her local council's stance. 

Luff said that given climate change, the lands the Lougheed government shielded from coal mining are more important now than ever, particularly rivers that aren't glacier-fed and rely solely on snowmelt and rainfall, which can dry up quickly during a hot season. 

"We've just come through one of the worst droughts in Alberta's history this past summer and into the fall," said Luff. "The climate has changed dramatically."

Molly Segal

Reader feedback

Following our stories on the decarbonization of heating, Keith Solomon wrote to tell us about his green community:

"About five years ago, we moved to a retirement community between Belwood and Fergus in Ontario. This community, Pine Meadows, contains 195 free-standing homes and was conceived and built in the 1990s by the landowner, Don Vallery. With remarkable foresight, Don chose to install geothermal heat pumps for cooling and heating the houses and part of the central community centre. All other utilities, such as water heaters, cooking, washing and drying are electric. 

"Apart from a few decorative propane fireplaces and BBQs, the entire community runs on electricity. This was a major reason for us buying a house in the community in 1998 and I have not changed my mind since then. There are no chimneys on the houses and no external air conditioners to sully the summer evenings with the roar of outdoor fans and compressors. The heat pump unit in the basement is very quiet and the heat is pumped to and from fluids circulating in underground pipes. The only movement of air is in the HVAC system of the house.

"The houses have 15 centimetres of insulation in the outside walls, have insulated concrete walls in the basements, and 30 centimetres of insulation in the ceilings. This helps to keep consumption of electricity down so that my costs for electricity are lower than I was paying for a combination of electricity and propane in our previous house of similar size in the country, south of Guelph. One reason for this is that heat pumps are about five times more efficient at moving heat around than direct resistive heating with electricity (as in baseboard heaters).

"To my knowledge, Pine Meadows is uniquely positioned as an example of what can be done to reduce the release of greenhouse gases from heating houses. This would be a good story to show what can be achieved."

This made us wonder about examples of green communities in other parts of the country. Do you live in one or know someone who does? When was it built? What are some of the features that other communities could learn from? We'd love to highlight some of these in a future issue.

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! Young Black leaders say Canada must fight for environmental and climate justice, and find their inspiration in a man considered the father of the movement — Robert Bullard. Hear more this week with What On Earth host Laura Lynch. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: B.C. utilities duke it out on Twitter

Last week, Inayat Singh wrote about the battle brewing between a couple of B.C. utilities amid the province's broader efforts to reduce building emissions. BC Hydro, the province's main electrical utility, is trying to convince consumers to transition to heat pumps for their heating and cooling needs; meanwhile, FortisBC, a gas utility, is touting renewable natural gas as a cheaper option that can help reduce overall emissions. This fundamental disagreement on the best way to regulate temperatures in buildings while reducing emissions has spilled onto Twitter, where it has turned into a bona fide beef complete with memes (like the reference to the popular game Wordle seen below).


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

First Nation wants Ottawa to help clean up plastic waste left by 27-year boil water advisory

(Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

A remote northern Ontario First Nation wants Ottawa to help it find an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the thousands of empty water bottles that have piled up over 27 years under a long-term drinking water advisory.

Neskantaga, a fly-in Oji-Cree community with approximately 300 members located about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, marked a grim milestone this week — the longest drinking water advisory of any First Nation.

"It shouldn't be like that in a country like Canada," said Chief Wayne Moonias.

Like many other First Nations, Neskantaga does not have waste pickup or recycling. Most of its garbage, including plastic, is incinerated or ends up in a dump.

Ottawa sends weekly water shipments to the community but doesn't bring back all the used plastic bottles. 

Moonias said that with its lack of potable water, crumbling infrastructure and high rate of suicide, Neskantaga has too much on its plate to deal with plastic waste.

"It's a concern for our community, because we all know that we need to do something to protect the environment," he said. But it's hard for members to do it on their own because they're "spending their efforts and energies on trying to address the well-being of our community."

In the last federal budget, Ottawa set aside $560 million over seven years for solid waste management projects in First Nations. But there is still no federal plan to address plastic waste in communities. Some First Nations, including Neskantaga, are calling for that to change.

"We are hurting our land by dumping all this plastic when we could be doing something about it," said Charla Moonias, a 24-year-old Neskantaga member. "We need to do better for our future generations."

She said she would like to see workers hired to sort out recycling and ship plastic waste out on aircraft or winter ice roads.

Bearskin Lake First Nation, a fly-in community of roughly 400 located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, also wants to change the way it handles plastic waste created by more than two decades of a drinking water advisory.

"There's no such thing as recycling up here in the community," Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said.

Indigenous Services Canada has a First Nations Waste Management Initiative to help develop sustainable waste management systems. The department told CBC it has spent $384,000 since 2019 to support a community-led solid waste management planning project for Neskantaga for storing and handling plastics.

In 2021, it also gave $137,000 to Matawa Tribal Council to fund a full-time solid waste co-ordinator position to help all Matawa First Nations, including Neskantaga and Bearskin Lake, with waste management strategies.

But plastic recycling doesn't have a good track record, said associate professor Shirley Thompson of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Thompson said the burden of reducing plastic waste should fall on retail stores operating in northern and remote communities, including Neskantaga. They could start deposit-return programs for people to return water bottles for a small refund, she said.

"Having a federal regulation that requires it will result in better follow-up."

For far too long, Ottawa has pushed waste management in First Nations down the priority list, Thompson said. She researched waste management in more than a dozen First Nations and found that many have landfills that are not a safe distance from roads or rivers, which can put them at risk of contamination.

She also said First Nations communities, including Neskantaga, often burn their garbage, generating toxic chemical waste.

"This is a necessary evil in the fact that they don't have money for covering up the landfill on a regular basis," she said. "This is a result of policy. There is not sufficient funding for waste."

The ultimate solution for Neskantaga would be to lift its boil water advisory, but Moonias said he can't offer a timeline for ending it.

Indigenous Services Canada spent $20.9 million to update the community's water treatment plant and another $4.1 million for related wastewater system upgrades. The water treatment system upgrade is complete.

But there is still some work to do to address problems such as leaks, and to make sure the upgrade works with the aging distribution system.

"The faith and trust in the system is very low right now," Moonias said. "Our community has suffered far too long."

Olivia Stefanovich

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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