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Doubts raised over protections from reinstated 1976 Alberta coal policy

Click to play video 'Red flags and mistrust flare up over Alberta government coal flip-flop' Red flags and mistrust flare up over Alberta government coal flip-flop
Groups opposed to coal mining in Alberta's foothills say the UCP government's reinstatement of a long-standing policy is a start, but doesn't go enough. Conservationist Kevin Van Tighem outlines how open pit mines could still be allowed. Calling it a potential bait-and-switch, he calls on Albertans to keep the pressure on during an interview with Global News at Noon Edmonton – Feb 9, 2021

Doubts are surfacing over the Alberta government’s decision to restore a policy that protects the Rocky Mountains from coal mining.

“I think (it) did a bait and switch and I’m very disappointed,” said Kevin van Tighem, a southern Alberta landowner and environmentalist.

Read more: Alberta to reinstate 1976 coal policy revoked last spring after public outcry

Energy Minister Sonya Savage, after overwhelming public opposition, on Monday brought back a 1976 policy that keeps open-pit coal mines out of most of the province’s Rockies and foothills. She added that her government made the policy more rigorous.

“We strengthened it in a directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator,” she told CBC Radio on Tuesday.

Some suggest that directive gives plenty of scope for exactly the kind of activity Savage says she has blocked.

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“The climbdown doesn’t affect approved exploration programs,” said University of Calgary resource law professor Nigel Bankes.

“We’re going to continue to see activity on the landscape pursuant to those approvals.”

Six companies hold exploration permits allowing hundreds of new drill sites and kilometres of new and refurbished roads.

Click to play video '‘We should have done better’: Alberta environment minister responds to reinstatement of 1976 coal policy' ‘We should have done better’: Alberta environment minister responds to reinstatement of 1976 coal policy
‘We should have done better’: Alberta environment minister responds to reinstatement of 1976 coal policy – Feb 8, 2021

Bankes pointed out that Savage’s promise to block mountaintop removal mines — which remove a peak to expose coal — doesn’t affect one proposal to do exactly that near the Crowsnest Pass. That plan by Benga Mining Ltd., a subsidiary of an Australian company, is currently before an environmental hearing.

Nor does the reinstatement of the coal policy guarantee the Rockies won’t see strip or open-pit mines. The directive to the regulator only says mines on those sensitive landscapes must “not involve mountaintop removal.”

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“That’s what gives the game away,” said Van Tighem, a former superintendent with Banff National Park.

In the directive, Savage also points out that surface mining is not banned, but rather “would not normally be considered.”

“That’s not new, but emphasizing it to the Alberta Energy Regulator in a letter from the minister is new,” said Van Tighem, who called the phrase “a wink and a nudge.”

Read more: More Alberta communities voice concern over province’s plans to expand coal

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, agrees.

“There are loopholes in that reversal,” he said. “They did not end coal mining.”

Bratt added the province has cancelled other contracts such as the one to transport oil by rail. It could have cancelled the coal exploration leases but chose not to.

He said the decision follows a pattern of reversals under Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government, including not closing any provincial parks after saying it would and flip-flopping on whether to sanction caucus members who travelled outside Canada over Christmas.

“They have been doubling down on this (coal) policy for months, then all of a sudden it’s a snap change and they’re sending one of the ministers out to explain it,” said Bratt.

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Read more: Alberta won’t close any provincial parks, despite previous delisting plan

That doesn’t inspire trust, he suggested.

“(Former premier) Ralph Klein could famously pivot, but he did the pivoting. He did the mea culpa. He didn’t send someone else out.”

Bankes said it will be important to keep an eye on how the promised consultations are organized.

Click to play video 'Mountaintop coal mining ‘will never be allowed in Alberta’: Energy Minister Savage' Mountaintop coal mining ‘will never be allowed in Alberta’: Energy Minister Savage
Mountaintop coal mining ‘will never be allowed in Alberta’: Energy Minister Savage – Feb 8, 2021

Alberta is already holding separate consultations as part of attempts to write regional land-use plans, he noted. Those talks have the legal weight of legislation behind them, but the role of public feedback on coal mines is unclear.

“This process seems to be on the fly,” said Bankes. “It may be integrated into land-use planning, but isn’t there some onus on minister Savage to explain?”

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Van Tighem said the government has sacrificed a lot of public trust over the coal-mining issue.

“Lacking trust, I look at this and see a great deal to be concerned about. I’m not convinced that we’re any further ahead.

“It’s not even nearly over.”

Read more: Alberta promises close watch on new mines but cuts oversight of coal polluted rivers

University of Calgary resource law professor Nigel Bankes says the ban doesn’t apply everywhere, despite Savage’s assurances that mountaintop removal mines are prohibited.

That means Benga Mining’s proposal for such a mine, now before a review panel, could still go ahead.

Bankes also points out exploration already permitted can still go ahead, so hundreds of drill sites and kilometres of roads could still be built despite return of the policy.

Environmentalist Kevin van Tighem calls bringing back the coal policy a “bait and switch.”

He says the energy minister’s letter to the Alberta Energy Regulator still allows for the possibility of open-pit mines.

Click to play video 'In wake of public backlash, Alberta reinstates 1976 coal policy' In wake of public backlash, Alberta reinstates 1976 coal policy
In wake of public backlash, Alberta reinstates 1976 coal policy – Feb 8, 2021