The Alberta government says it is reinstating the 1976 coal policy it revoked last spring after much public backlash.
The province said Monday morning this move includes reinstating the four coal categories which dictated where and how coal leasing, exploration and development could occur.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage also issued a directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator so no mountaintop removal will be permitted and all of the restrictions under the 1976 coal categories are to apply, including all restrictions on surface mining in Category 2 lands.
Category 2 lands include parts of the southern Rocky Mountains and the foothills. All future coal exploration approvals on Category 2 lands will be prohibited pending widespread consultations on a new coal policy, the province said.
“Albertans have spoken loud and clear and we have heard them,” Savage said in a media release.
“Not only we will reinstate the full 1976 coal policy, we will implement further protections and consult with Albertans on a new, modern coal policy. Alberta’s government is absolutely committed to protecting the majestic Eastern Slopes and the surrounding natural environment.”
The previous policy, put in place in 1976 under Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives, took two years to develop. That policy blocked surface coal mines in about 1.4 million hectares of wilderness that is home to endangered species and the headwaters of rivers depended on by many in southern Alberta.
As recently as last week, Premier Jason Kenney called the policy a “dead letter” and suggested that urbanites who didn’t support rural jobs in coal mining were in part responsible for fuelling the controversy.
The Alberta government quietly rescinded the policy last May without public consultation.
“We should have done better and we admit we didn’t get this one right. We’re not perfect and Albertans sure let us know that,” Savage said during a news conference Monday.
“We could have done a better job.”
The policy protected a wide swath of the province’s foothills and mountains from coal mines.
Savage said the policy was “obsolete” and “predated our modern understanding on climate change.”
After the policy was revoked, communities throughout Alberta voiced outrage and called for the old rules to be reinstated. Environmental groups, ranchers and First Nations have taken the province to court in an attempt to get a judge to force the United Conservative government to reconsider.
Late last week, the government hinted that changes were in the works to the unpopular plan to open up huge areas of previously unmined areas to open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Savage said there are currently six coal projects being explored on Category 2 lands, four of which began exploration under the 1976 coal policy. Two applications were approved after the 1976 coal policy was rescinded.
“It’ll be up to companies to determine how they manage their coal exploration programs. We don’t intend to remove approvals that were already granted by the regulator.”
High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass welcomed the decision.
“This was the main ask from Day 1,” he told The Canadian Press.
However, he added damage has been done, as drilling and road-building continues under permits that have already been issued.
Snodgrass said the message to the coal industry is plain.
“The minister has made this very clear about where this is headed,” he said. “I’d be pretty nervous if I was a … coal investor.”
Kevin Van Tighem, former chief superintendent of Banff National Park, said while he feels a bit of trust has been restored, he doesn’t feel the ordeal is over.
“I felt uneasy about some of the things (Savage) said and didn’t say. It’s not the time to pop the cork on champagne but it might be time to sit back and have a beer, but this is not over, I’m afraid,” he said.
“She never was unequivocal about saying, ‘There will be no surface mining in eastern slopes,’ and that’s all she had to say but she didn’t.
“She’s starting to earn trust back. We are in a way better place today than we were yesterday. Hats off to her. That couldn’t have been a pleasant press conference admitting an error and she did it with class and responding to our biggest concerns but we are not out of the woods.”
The province said widespread public consultation will now be held with Albertans. Details on the process will be released in the coming weeks. A timeline for the consultation process is not yet known.
“The consultation will be rigorous, it will be lengthy, it will hear the input of all Albertans on all views related to coal,” Savage said. “We want to take the time and get this right.”
The leader of the Official Opposition said she’d like to see the government “show their work on this one.”
“Albertans need to know that this consultation will be real, public, transparent and that their voices will be heard,” Rachel Notley said in a news release.
Notley added this isn’t the end, just the beginning.
“This is a short-term victory. We must remain vigilant. This government’s record has been one of secrecy and misinformation. We know Albertans do not trust them,” she said.
“They are undermining Alberta as a place for an investment. Sophisticated international investment dollars are going to find different places to go.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he is pleased with the move, and added it’s a good lesson for the Alberta government when it comes to transparency and consultation.
“If I’m the government of Alberta, I’m really thinking hard not just how to fix this one, but how to make sure that we have a better, more authentic governance that reflects what people need,” he said.
“The fact that this went through without any public consultation in a situation where the chief lobbyist for the coal sector is the former Conservative environment minister, it just looks weird and it doesn’t pass the smell test. And I’m really pleased that the government of Alberta has chosen to put this on the back burner and actually talk to the people who live and work in these areas to develop a better policy.”
The Coal Association of Canada declined to comment.
“Mr. Campbell will not be making any comments until he understands the details of today’s announcement more thoroughly.”
With files from Bob Weber, The Canadian Press.