Grassy Mountain is Not an Exempt Project

Based on the Government’s own authority, the Alberta Energy Regulator cannot approve a new coal exploration permit for Grassy Mountain

When we first heard that Northback Holdings (previously Benga Mining Ltd) was applying for a new deep drilling exploration permit on the Grassy Mountain site, we were dismayed but not surprised.  Since the project was rejected by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) in June 2021, after five weeks of public hearing, the company has filed various appeals (all of which have been denied). In August 2021, the Federal Government also rejected the project due to its environmental impact. However, Benga/Northback seem unable to accept the Joint Federal Provincial Review Panel’s decision that the project is not in the public interest.  

The panel report states: “In our capacity as a panel of AER hearing commissioners, we find that the project’s significant adverse environmental effects on surface water quality and westslope cutthroat trout and habitat outweigh the low to moderate positive economic impacts of the project. Therefore, we find that the project is not in the public interest.” 

The panel also concluded that the project would result in the loss of lands used for traditional activities by Indigenous peoples and that the project is likely to result in significant adverse effects to physical and cultural heritage for three Treaty 7 First Nations.   

And none of that has changed.

There is still no economically feasible way to treat polluted wastewater (and if ever there was a year to remind us of the importance and fragility of our water system, this is it!), westslope cutthroat trout are still a federally Threatened species for which it is illegal to destroy Critical Habitat, and First Nations still practice traditional activities under Treaty on these lands. 

What has changed is that since the company first applied for mine approval is that, in the wake of the cancellation of the Alberta Coal Policy in March 2020, Albertans have become much more aware of the potentially devastating impacts of coal in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, rising up by the thousands to say no to new coal projects. 

This public push caused the government to set a new direction on coal through issuing Ministerial Order 002/2022 in March 2022, pausing all new coal exploration and development across the Eastern Slopes, with four exemptions for “advanced projects” – which at the time included the Grassy Mountain Coal Project.  

However, we took a second look at the Ministerial Order and the wording is key.  The Ministerial Order does not mention the Grassy Mountain Project itself but describes the conditions in which a project would be exempt.  

Sections 3, 5 and 6 of the order directs the Alberta Energy Regulator to suspend approvals, and to not accept new applications, for coal exploration and development on Category 3 and 4 lands (Grassy Mountain is on Category 4 lands), except those that are related to an advanced coal project or an active approval for a coal mine (emphasis added).  

The order defines “advanced coal projects” and “active approvals for coal mines” as follows:  

  • Advanced coal project – Proposed coal projects where applicants have submitted a project summary to the AER to determine whether an environmental impact assessment is required for the proposed project. 
  • Active approval for a coal mine – Existing coal projects that have been granted a licence to operate under the Coal Conservation Act. 

Does Northback have an advanced coal project? 

Northback can only have an advanced project if there is a “project for which the proponent has submitted a project summary to the AER for the purposes of determining whether an environmental impact assessment is required.” 

Benga had such a project. Benga had applications under the Coal Conservation Act for a mine permit and mine license (Application 1844520) and for an approval to construct and operate a new coal-processing plant (Application 1902073). 

However, the Joint Review Panel report stated that: “[3050] Exercising our authority as the AER, we deny Benga’s applications 1844520 and 1902073 under the Coal Conservation Act.” 

With that decision Benga no longer had an active application, and therefore no longer had an advanced coal project and so Northback as its successor cannot claim to have an advanced coal project. 

Does Northback have an active approval for a coal mine? 

Likewise, Northback can only have an active approval if it has a licence under the Coal Conservation Act. Benga’s application for such a licence was denied. Neither Benga nor Northback have a licence and therefore neither can be said to have an active approval. 

So, if Grassy Mountain can no longer be considered and “advanced coal project” nor have an “active approval for a coal mine,” it no longer qualifies as an exemption under Ministerial Order 002/2022 and the AER cannot accept a new application for coal exploration. 

CPAWS Southern Alberta has submitted a Statement of Concern to the AER to this effect and a letter asking the Minister of Energy and Minerals to direct the AER to deny Northback Holdings Application 1948547 for a Deep Drilling Permit as it is inconsistent with Ministerial Order 002/2022.   

Take action today! Send your letter to the Minister of Energy and Minerals and demand he direct the Alberta Energy Regulator deny Northback Holdings Northback Holdings Application 1948547 for a Deep Drilling Permit at Grassy Mountain.