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Concerns over Alberta government’s plans for public consultation on new coal policy

Click to play video: 'Alberta government poised to release plan for public consultation on modern coal policy' Alberta government poised to release plan for public consultation on modern coal policy
WATCH: It's been just over a week since the Alberta government reinstated the 1976 coal policy. There was also promise made to engage in robust public consultation. But as Jill Croteau reports, some are still skeptical it will be done in good faith – Feb 17, 2021

While Albertans who advocated for the 1976 provincial coal policy to be restored are grateful the government heard their opposition, trust is far from restored.

The Feb. 8 announcement reinstated the policy, putting protections back in Category 2 lands, including most of the eastern slopes in the Rockies. Energy Minister Sonya Savage promised a robust consultation with Albertans and First Nations on developing a modern coal policy.

But now, just more than a week after Savage’s press conference, some who lobbied for this move now want to know more about the consultation.

Katie Morrison, the conservation director with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), said a coal policy needs to benefit Albertans.

“It needs to actually reflect what Albertans are saying and not some balance between what Albertans want and what Australian coal companies want.”

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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

Morrison insists more protections are needed for the eastern slopes of the Rockies. She said all activity should stop in Category 2 until the public consultation has ended.

“When the government reinstated that, they left the door open a crack for these companies who already started work,” Morrison said. “We know these companies were talking to the government long before they were talking to us, so they had a chance to put in those exploration applications and start those activities on the ground.”

In a statement to Global News, Minister Savage said “there are currently no project applications for coal mines on Category 2 land.”

Dr. Ian Urquhart, conservation director for Alberta Wilderness Association, said the provincial government’s guarantees of meaningful discussions aren’t enough.

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“The government will try and structure public consultations to get the outcomes they prefer,” Urquhart said. “It needs to be (an) independent third party panel of experts and part of their mandate should be to invite the public to participate in hearings.”

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
Red flags and mistrust flare up over Alberta government coal flip-flop – Feb 9, 2021

Urquhart said he’s worried Minister Savage’s news announcement doesn’t mirror the directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). He said more clarity is needed.

“The minister said, ‘Let me be clear, there will not be mountain top removal in Alberta,'” Urquhart said. “That’s not exactly what the directive said. The directive said, ‘There wont be mountain top removal in Category 2.’ There is a project north of Coleman that will sprawl for over 100 square km, and because it’s Category 4 you can remove tops of mountains,” Urquhart said.

Savage said she’s asked her department to work on an engagement plan that allows broad input, including broadly consulting with Indigenous peoples.

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“In the coming weeks I will be announcing an engagement plan that will outline the next steps for consultation and we are hoping to begin those consultations in the first half of 2021,” Savage said.

Piikani First Nation member Adam North Peigan said their community wasn’t consulted from the start and want more inclusion moving forward.

“That consultation has to happen at a grassroots community level with others brought in,” North Peigan said. “What (usually) happens is they form a government relationship and consult with chief and council, and that’s all they do.”

Read more: Coal scientist warns Albertans of contamination from mining

“Government is keen on meeting with industry but when it comes to mainstream and First Nations people, we have been left out in the dark,” North Peigan said.

Latasha Calf Robe, a Blood Tribe and Kainai Nation member, said she doesn’t feel their version of consultation aligns with the province’s ideas.

“The mountains aren’t just woven into our First Nations identity, it’s woven into our DNA.”

“Those voices need to be heard from traditional knowledge keepers, from women and children and those benefiting from these mountains in the future,” Calf Robe said.

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Calf Robe hopes the province is prepared to invest the time. It took six years to draft the first coal policy in 1976 — to write a more modern one could take just as long.

“Realistically we are looking at years in the making to include all those voices,” Calf Robe said.

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