Alberta reverses direction on coal development and reinstates 1976 policy, for now

In the wake of mounting opposition to its sudden decision to cancel a 44-year-old policy that protected parts of the Rockies from coal development, the Alberta government now says it will reinstate that policy and consult with the public about future changes.

“What we’re doing today — keeping the 1976 coal policy in place and committing to consult on a modernized policy — is what we should have done in the beginning,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Monday.

“We didn’t do it then, but we’re going to do it now.”

The shift in strategy comes after growing pressure from municipal councils, First Nations, environmentalists, country music stars and everyday Albertans upset by the coal-policy changes the government initially announced nine months ago.

The cancellation of the 1976 Coal Development Policy for Alberta was revealed via press release on the Friday afternoon before the May long weekend in 2020.

It came with no public consultation.

At the time, Savage described the province’s move as a “common-sense” decision aimed at creating “certainty and flexibility for industry.”

WATCH | ‘What we’re doing today … is what we should have done in the beginning,’ Savage says:

Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s full press conference announcing the provincial government’s backtrack on its previous decision to cancel the 1976 Coal Development Policy for Alberta. 16:04

Robin Campbell, a former Alberta environment minister and current president of the Coal Association of Canada, said in May that the coal industry was “quite pleased” by the removal of the 1976 policy, which placed restrictions on mining and exploration activity across wide swaths of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and foothills.

Documents from Alberta’s lobbyist registry show Campbell and other industry representatives were involved in meetings with government officials in the weeks and months leading up to the old policy’s cancellation.

But on Monday, Savage said the old policy will, in effect, be reinstated and Albertans will be consulted before the government makes additional changes in the future.

Two applications for coal exploration approved after the 1976 policy was rescinded will be permitted to continue, but applications for additional exploration in former “Category 2” lands will be prohibited, pending what the government said will be “widespread consultations on a new coal policy.”

The province said it won’t issue any new coal leases in these areas, either, until the consultations are complete.

“An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you’ve made a mistake and to fix it,” Savage said Monday. “And that’s what we are doing.”

The 1976 policy

The old policy, created by the Progressive Conservative government of premier Peter Lougheed in 1976, created four “categories” of land with different sets of rules when it comes to coal mining.

You can see each category in the interactive map below.

In Category 1 (red), all coal development was forbidden. This area encompassed mostly the Rocky Mountains, spanning roughly 700 kilometres from the U.S. border north to what is now Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park.

In Category 2 (blue), open-pit mines were restricted. This covered lands mostly to the east, including both mountains and foothills.

Categories 3 (green) and 4 (purple) generally trended farther eastward, toward the plains and saw fewer restrictions, but there are some limited sections of Category 4 land in the mountains, as well.

You can scroll and zoom on this interactive map. You can also click or tap on a coal lease (in grey) or mining licence (in orange) for more detail about it.

The biggest change, in effect, of the coal policy’s cancellation came in what used to be classified as Category 2 lands.

While the old policy allowed for some “limited exploration” in these lands, provided it was “under strict control,” it also asserted that open-pit mining “will not normally be considered” in these areas due to the nature of the landscape.

While it was possible for companies to apply for exemptions and pursue mining activity in Category 2 lands in the past, Campbell said it was seen as a cumbersome process, and by cancelling the policy’s blanket rules across these areas, the government had removed a major hurdle to coal investment in Alberta.

“For example, around Rocky Mountain House, we have a couple of projects that were on Category 2 lands,” Campbell said at the time. “This now allows them to move forward. It allows them to go out and raise money in the international community. And it allows them to start building an operation, which is going to create jobs.”

Mounting opposition

Other Albertans were upset by the cancellation of the 1976 policy, however, and the way the government went about it.

Numerous groups have raised concerns about damage to iconic landscapes and potential environmental harm, including the risk of streams and rivers being contaminated with selenium as a result of mining activity.

A series of coal mines in British Columbia, just west of Crowsnest Pass, about 230 km south of Calgary, have leached selenium into waterways for years, setting off disputes with U.S. officials downstream and decimating rare fish populations.

WATCH | More voices join calls to rethink new direction on coal:

Opposition to open-pit mining is starting to gain traction months after the Alberta government cancelled a decades old coal policy preventing development of land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Ranchers, municipalities and well-known Albertan musicians are sounding the alarm, asking the government to reconsider. 3:12

In an interview last week, Savage said she had heard people’s concerns.

“I’m very, very aware of the concerns and the growing concerns and we will be addressing it,” she said Thursday. “There was never any intention when the coal policy was rescinded to change any of the restrictions or any of the protections in the eastern slopes [of the Rocky Mountains].”

Savage went on: “The concept of blowing the tops off the mountains, that will not happen.”

On Monday, Savage said the details of the consultation process will be announced “in the weeks ahead.” 

“It will be a thorough process so that we have time to hear from Albertans. I’m sure that we’re going to hear from a lot of them on what the future of coal looks like.”

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