Coal mining in Alberta: Where do we go from here?

Postmedia talked to those on all sides of the issue to explore if there is a path forward for the development of the coal industry in Alberta, or if this is a resource destined to be left in the ground

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Last week, provincial Energy Minister Sonya Savage set a date for the start of public consultations on a “modern coal policy” for Alberta.

While no details have been announced yet, the government says the consultations — set to begin March 29 — will engage Albertans in the development of a coal policy that will “protect the areas Albertans cherish while allowing responsible resource development in the appropriate places.”

But does coal have a future in a province where 100,000 people from all backgrounds and political stripes signed petitions opposing new mines in the Rockies? Postmedia talked to those on all sides of the issue to explore if there is a path forward for the development of the coal industry in Alberta, or if this is a resource destined to be left in the ground.

The consultations are the fulfillment of a promise made by Savage after the government bowed to a firestorm of controversy that swept the province this winter. Last spring, the government revoked a 1976 policy that had protected large swaths of the Rocky Mountains and the Eastern Slopes from open-pit coal mines. The decision was made without public notice or input, and over the coming months, opposition grew and spread rapidly. Some of Alberta’s most well-known musicians — as well as First Nations, municipal leaders and environmentalists — spoke out against the expansion of coal mining into new regions of the province.

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In response to the backlash, Savage reinstated the old policy and has since vowed there will be no open-pit mining on the most environmentally sensitive regions of the Eastern Slopes. She also cancelled 11 recently issued coal leases and pressed pause on future lease sales pending the outcome of the public consultations.

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But there are still six proposed new coal mines (which aim to produce metallurgical coal to be exported to Asian markets for use in steel-making) already in various stages of development in Alberta. Most of the companies behind these projects have openly touted Alberta’s business-friendly climate and “pro-development” government in presentations to their investors.

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And the government itself is not ready to give up on the coal industry. In a recent interview, Savage said the province is home to a world-class coal resource that could still be capitalized on.

“We know Alberta has an abundance of metallurgical coal for steel-making, and the world is looking for that,” Savage said. “There’s limited places in the world that have access to metallurgical coal. We just need to understand from Albertans what their views are, where there are no-go zones, and where it will be permitted.”

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage.
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Postmedia, file

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, there are 91 billion tonnes of coal resources at depths suitable for mining in the province, and coal-bearing formations underlie about 300,000 square kilometres, almost half of Alberta. The 1976 coal policy included a land-use classification system that divided the province into four categories, dictating where and how coal leasing, exploration and development could occur.

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The government’s controversial move to rescind that policy brought an end to mining restrictions on Category 2 and 3 lands, which include previously protected parts of the Eastern Slopes region. Some of the current mine projects proposed for Alberta — including the Atrum Coal project and the Cabin Ridge project — are located on Category 2 lands, where such mines previously were not permitted.

Other proposed mines are unaffected by recent changes in government policy. The Grassy Mountain project currently under review by a joint federal-provincial panel — as well as Montem’s Tent Mountain project — are proposed to be built on Category 4 land, which always allowed for potential coal development. (The sites of both proposed projects were in fact previously mined.)

However, Katie Morrison with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said she believes most Albertans are less concerned with the specific category designations of land, and more concerned with the scale of overall proposed coal development.

“The rescinding of the coal policy opened people’s eyes to the threat of new coal,” Morrison said. “I suspect that based on the reaction to the rescinding of the coal policy, a lot of people think there is not room for new coal in that landscape.”

According to polling firm ThinkHQ, 69 per cent of Albertans disapprove of mining in previously protected areas. That stance appears to be shared by people from all sides of the political spectrum — former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, a keen advocate for Alberta’s oilsands, wrote an op-ed for the Calgary Herald in which he concluded, “Would it be better for our water and environment and our long-term reputation if we just decided to say no to starting new mines?”

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In an interview, NDP opposition leader Rachel Notley — whose government did not oppose Grassy Mountain when that project application was first submitted to regulators in 2016 — told Postmedia that she doesn’t believe the answer is “no, no, never” when it comes to the development of new coal mines in Alberta. But she said development on Category 1 or Category 2 lands should be ruled out.

“We have to move forward as a province in terms of diversifying our economy, and we have to be looking at future growth industries. Coal has a lot of cost to it, environmentally. It generates some jobs, but not that many jobs. And it’s an industry with which there is a sunset within our sights,” Notley said. “I’m just not sure this is something any government should be building an economic recovery on.”

Mount Royal University political scientist Keith Brownsey pointed out that in 2019, the coal industry generated just $10 million in royalties for the Alberta government.

“Even if we quadrupled that, that’s not a lot of money for the government,” Brownsey said. “So I have to ask myself, what’s the point here? There is little public appetite — I think that’s quite apparent — for coal mining.”

However, Lisa Sygutek, a councillor for the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, disagrees. She said 75 per cent of residents of her community who responded to a municipal survey support the expansion of coal mining in their region — especially the Grassy Mountain project, which is the farthest along in the development stage. The company behind that project, Benga Mining, is promising to create 500 construction jobs and 400 full-time jobs in a community where 52 per cent of the population makes a wage of $50,000 or less and where most young people are forced to leave to seek opportunities elsewhere.

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The company is also promising to generate $1.7 billion in royalties and taxes for the provincial government over its estimated 23-year lifespan, and says it would pay $35 million in municipal taxes over the life of the mine.

Sygutek, whose husband is an engineer for a Teck coal mine across the border in B.C., said she wants her son to be able to have a good-paying career too, and the Grassy Mountain project could provide that in his home community. She said she is frustrated by those who say a new coal mine would poison the aquifer or harm the air quality, because she believes any new mine would need to meet strict environmental and regulatory standards before it got approved.

“People don’t understand what modern day coal mining is. I think that’s what the problem is,” Sygutek said. “I never thought I’d see the day when Albertans would turn against natural resource extraction in this province. And the only reason I think it can happen is because of misinformation.”

Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada, said he thinks there are many Albertans who support the natural resource sector and are willing to entertain the notion of coal — they just aren’t as vocal about it. However, he acknowledged that the public outcry this winter “got to be too much for the government to control” and said he wasn’t surprised when the UCP reinstated the 1976 coal policy.

Campbell said companies will be paying close attention to what comes out of the anticipated public consultation process, adding there is no doubt the government’s about-face has had a chilling effect on his industry.

“You have people coming and wanting to invest in the province, and mid-stream, the government changes the rules,” Campbell said. “You’re going to have investors that supply the money for these companies taking a second look at Alberta and Canada, and whether or not they can get a return on their dollar, and whether or not it’s worth the risk.”

astephenson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @AmandaMsteph

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