The Alberta government has reversed its plans to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.
Public opposition to the move has grown significantly in the last number of days, with tens of thousands of people signing petitions, writing letters and joining online groups.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in an emailed statement that the province would cancel 11 recently issued coal leases and pause any future 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,” she said.
“As a result, we will pause future coal lease sales in former Category 2 lands. The coal leases from the December 2020 auction will be cancelled.”
“I want to be absolutely clear: Under the current terms, just as it was under the 1976 coal policy, coal leases do not allow for exploration, development or production without a comprehensive regulatory review. A lease holder has no more right to set foot on lease property than any other Albertan. The same rules apply now, as before.”
“This pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected.
“Coal development remains an important part of the Western Canadian economy, especially in rural communities, but we are committed to demonstrating that it will only be developed responsibly under Alberta’s modern regulatory standards and processes.
“This decision has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review.”
More than 100,000 signatures had been collected by Monday on two petitions opposing the United Conservative government’s move on two related fronts.
READ MORE: Alberta offers Rocky Mountain coal leases after rescinding protection policy
A Facebook site called Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters has more than doubled its membership over the last week to more than 10,000.
Last week, musician Corb Lund posted a Facebook video lambasting the province’s plans to open a vast stretch of its Rocky Mountains to open-pit coal mining.
“The scope of this thing — it’s huge,” Lund said in an interview.
“I’m from the foothills and it threatens the hell out of our water. And the mountains. It’s a big one.”
The NDP said the decision is a “small victory” but that eight leases that were already sold remain in effect.
“Today’s backpedaling from the UCP on their removal of protections for Category 2 public lands is a small victory for the thousands upon thousands of Albertans who have spoken up against this UCP government’s reckless decision to rip up Peter Lougheed’s coal policy,” NDP Environment Critic Marlin Schmidt said in a statement.
“While the UCP government has agreed to cancel the 11 most recently issued coal leases, there are another eight leases they sold last May that remain in effect.
“Further, they still have not committed to reinstating the coal policy and to consulting before making further changes. Without these commitments, these precious wild spaces are still under threat.”
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is still very worried about existing coal leases.
“While this is a step in the right direction, this ‘pause’ will have little effect on the ability of existing leases to be explored and developed for coal in the region,” said Katie Morrison, conservation director with CPAWS Southern Alberta.
“There are more than 840,000 hectares of coal leases and rights in the Eastern Slopes (of the Rocky Mountains). This area includes around 420,000 hectares within lands formerly protected as Category 2 (an area approximately the size of Kananaskis Country) that are now, and still with today’s announcement, open for development as open-pit coal mines. These areas continue to be open and at risk from coal exploration and mine development.”
The group says the 11 leases covered in the province’s announcement are small and only cover about 1,800 hectares — or 0.002 per cent of the area that’s already been leased.
“Whether or not the coal leases were existing or new, open-pit coal mines are now allowed in Alberta’s headwaters where they previously were not,” Morrison explained.
CPAWS is urging the government to fully reinstate the province’s previous coal policy, hold public consultations on the issue and permanently prohibit new coal proposals, exploration and open-pit mines in these areas.