Amid a rising public furor over an unannounced change in Alberta’s coal policy allowing the expansion of mining in the Rocky Mountains, Calgary city council is going to consider future actions.
Critics of two possible coal mines in southern Alberta say the resource extraction could introduce high levels of selenium into rivers and waterways.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city’s role as steward and manager of the Bow River watershed and the South Saskatchewan River watershed means city council has a vested interest in the issue.
“While the lands in question that the province is talking about are not directly impacting the headwaters of the Bow River, I understand that they are impacting the headwaters of the Old Man and Red Deer rivers,” Nenshi said Monday. “There is an impact to the overall watershed.”
On Monday morning, council approved a notice of motion from Ward 13 Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart that would have city administration come back to council with options given threats to the region’s watershed.
“It’s a multi-faceted issue,” Colley-Urquhart said Monday. “To what extent do you intervene or have an opinion on this?”
She said city council should be well-informed following a presentation from city administration and experts about the potential impacts of coal mining near the watersheds before making a decision on whether or not to take an advocacy position.
The notice of motion does open the door for the city to seek intervener status in the process in the future, Colley-Uqruhart said.
Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek asked city officials if Calgary had heard from the province ahead of the changes to the coal policy.
“To date, the City of Calgary was not engaged in this policy change,” Michael Thompson, general manager of the city’s utilities and environmental protection, said Monday morning.
Nenshi said one of the complaints he’s heard from Calgarians was the quiet way in which a nearly 45-year-old environmental policy was rescinded and replaced, saying even for him it “slipped by.”
“It was pretty shocking to me, the lack of consultation and the lack of discussion on this,” Nenshi said.
“And I think that we as the city should have a conversation about our own point of view as a corporation, as a government.”
Colley-Urquhart’s notice of motion also called for a presentation to the standing policy committee on utilities and corporate services, which would include a public hearing portion.
“If the province isn’t going to conduct a genuine public participation consultation exercise, which it appears they absolutely are not, then we need to give a voice to those folks,” she said.
Late Monday, the provincial government announced the cancellation of 11 coal mining land leases, as well as the decision to pause any new coal lease sales in former Category 2 lands.
“We have listened carefully to the concerns raised in recent days, and thank those who spoke up with passion,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a statement. “This pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected.”
On Friday, Energy Minister Jason Nixon told Global News Radio 770 CHQR’s Danielle Smith that any proposed coal mine projects would have to go through the same provincial and federal environmental approval processes.
“The changes that (the energy ministry) made in regards to the coal policy do not make it easier for future projects to be approved,” Nixon said on Global News Radio 770 CHQR.
“We have a lot of tools in our toolbox that have come in place since 1976 that are certainly stricter than the 1976 coal policy — the Environment Enhancement Act, the Alberta Water Act. The fact that we’ve established the Alberta Energy Regulator in the last decade, that’s a long way since 1976.
“And so what happened with Alberta Energy’s decision there is purely about making the system the same within their department of how oil and gas projects move through the department and how coal projects move through the department. But it in no way changed the strict environmental rules that take place inside this province.”
–With files from Global News’ Adam MacVicar