How Axing the Coal Policy Opened up the Eastern Slopes

By now you’ve likely heard of the 1976 Alberta Coal Policy and its cancellation in spring 2020 by the Alberta Energy Minister. This decision has been met by significant public backlash and is now even the subject of a court challenge against the Government of Alberta.

In the face of this public opposition the Minister of Environment and Parks claimed that the cancellation of the Coal Policy didn’t change anything about coal development approvals in Alberta, saying: “… there are a lot of rumours and misinformation out there, including the notion that Alberta Energy’s recession of the Coal Policy 1976 has opened up the Eastern Slopes for Strip Mining.” However, the reaction from the Australian coal industry regarding the decision tells a different story.

What was the Coal Policy?

The Coal Policy provided an important land use zoning framework and assisted governments in making informed management decisions regarding where the development of coal mines could take place. The policy was applied to the eastern slopes, a region crucially important to our province both environmentally and socially.

The Coal Policy’s Land Classification System prevented coal development on Category 1 lands and restricted development to underground or in-situ mining under Category 2 lands. While a “Protective Notation” has since been placed on Category 1 lands, which presumably flags for the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and coal companies that these areas should not be developed ; Protective Notations are not legally enforceable (we have not yet been able to obtain the actual Protective Notation (PNT) and the language has not been made public). Freehold coal, or privately held mineral rights, are also exempt from this protection in Category 1. Freehold coal rights in the former Category 1 lands are now open for open-pit coal mining.

The biggest change, as a result of the cancellation of the coal policy, has come to Category 2 lands. With the removal of the policy, leases can now also be granted and open-pit coal mines can now be explored and developed on sensitive Category 2 lands. These lands cover 1,458,000 ha of Alberta’s headwaters area. A region that provides the majority of water to downstream communities in Alberta and across the prairies. Lands that were formerly category 2 have now seen a sharp increase in coal exploration activity.

A Round of Applause from Industry

In the aftermath of the rescission of the Coal Policy, it has become clear that change was a result of a significant lobbying effort by the coal industry and was warmly welcomed by corporate boards down under. A 2019 presentation by Australian Capital Investment Partners which owns several coal companies with leases across Alberta’s Rocky Mountains including Oros, Phalanx and Ram Coal, stated that the “Alberta Government [is] in the process of changing the coal policy to allow more open pit mining” (you’ll remember that Albertans didn’t hear about this until May 2020).

An April 2020 Investor Report from another Australian mining company, Atrum Coal, states that with regard to the barrier of Category 2 lands that, “regular, proactive engagement with Alberta Government has significantly increased confidence of such an approval, potentially as early as this year” and that “Coal Association of Canada is also actively engaging the Alberta Government on this general issue.”

In May 2020, shortly after Albertans were first informed of this change, a press release from Atrum Coal celebrated the cancellation of the coal policy, saying that the policy change “represented a significant step forward” for the companies intent to develop a large coking coal mine in the southwest of the province.

The company also heralded the decision and noted that the removal of category 2 protections under the coal policy would expedite the approval process for their Elan Project. “Under the existing policy, Category 2 designation refers to land that is generally considered not to be appropriate for open pit coal mining. This meant that any open pit permitting approval for Elan would have required an exemption be granted.”

A more recent report from Montem Resources states that for their Isola project “All restrictions on issued coal leases within the former Coal Categories 2 and 3 have been removed, therefore the development status of Isola allows for both exploration and mining.”

All of these statements clearly show, contrary to the Minister’s statement, the coal companies themselves believe that “Alberta Energy’s recession of the Coal Policy 1976 has opened up the Eastern Slopes for Strip Mining.”

Impact on the Ground

If you have visited any formerly category 2 lands in the eastern slopes since the rescission of Coal Policy, it is likely you will have seen the impact of the change first hand. Over 721 exploratory drill sites have been constructed or approved and there have been hundreds of kilometers of new roads cut through the once wild landscape, just in the southwest region of the province. But how did all this industrial activity get started so quickly after the Coal Policy rescission?

While new leases were not being granted in Category 1 and 2 lands while the Coal Policy was still in effect, the government was still receiving applications for coal leases in Categories 2 and 3. These applications were neither granted nor rejected but left as “applications” in legal limbo. This essentially allowed companies to place “dibs” on leases in restricted areas. After the rescission of the Coal Policy, these applications were officially granted and became full leases or agreements.

Coal exploration permits are now being granted at lightning pace to rip up sensitive Category 2 areas and build hundreds of kilometers of new roads, stream crossings and hundreds of test drill pits. Previously, these activities would not have been approved. This coal exploration has led to a significantly increased industrial footprint; disturbance directly enabled by the cancellation of the Coal Policy.

While it is true that each of these projects will have to undergo the AER’s regulatory process, this system does not offer the same protections and planning that the Coal Policy did. The Coal Policy provided the peace of mind that open pit coal mines were not considered an appropriate use in such important areas . Now that the policy has been scrapped, those assurances have been lost along with it. The Alberta Energy Regulator was never intended to conduct landscape level planning. The body is not equipped to make decision on where projects are or are not appropriate but rather to ensure that the bare minimum regulatory requirements are met. When proposing to remove the top of a mountain and expose known pollutants to our waters, these minimum requirements cannot begin to guarantee that serious environmental damage will not occur. Regulators can, and have, approved projects with significant environmental impacts when they believe the economic benefits promised by the company to be of economic benefit. However, often the stated economic promises are not even tracked and rarely are they fully realized.

Knowing all of this, it is impossible to believe any statement claiming there has been no change in protections and that no new areas have opened for strip mining. Increased access to the eastern slopes for coal mining was very clearly the intent of the cancellation of the Coal Policy. This was done at the request and for the benefit, of coal companies and the Coal Association of Canada. Now it is time for Albertans to be heard – the eastern slopes must be protected from exploration activities being conducted today and the irreversible damage of mountain top removal mining in the future.