Alberta’s lone New Democrat member of Parliament tabled proposed legislation Tuesday that would require all coal-mining proposals to go before a full federal environmental assessment.
The private member’s bill would apply across Canada, but Heather McPherson said it’s in reaction to a flurry of coal-exploration projects in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, where at least six companies are working to establish open-pit mines.
“We’ve heard from just a ton of folks that have been telling us that the provincial process is not adequate,” said McPherson, who represents Edmonton Strathcona.
Current legislation requires a federal assessment only when mines plan to produce more than 5,000 tonnes of coal a day or increase their size by 50 per cent. McPherson said that opens the door to companies filing proposals that come in just under the limits. That’s been the case with the Coalspur Mines Vista operation and the Tent Mountain proposal by Montem Resources.
McPherson’s bill, all of one sentence, would remove production thresholds from regulations for the current Impact Assessment Act and make all coal exploration, mining and reclamation subject to federal review. Proponents say the federal evaluation process is more detailed and provides for much greater public input than Alberta-led reviews.
Many Albertans have lost faith in their government’s ability to manage resource development, McPherson said.
“The approvals come fast and furious. There does not seem to be the oversight that one would expect.
“Because of that, a vast amount of Albertans have lost faith that the provincial government is looking after their best interest when it comes to coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.”
Her comments echo those of Ron Wallace, chairman of a committee struck by the Alberta government to gather public input on coal mining. Last week, he told callers to a radio phone-in show that he was troubled by survey results that suggested 85 per cent of Albertans didn’t trust the province’s regulator on coal mining.
Concerns about regulation of the province’s resource industry are long-standing. Between 2006 and 2011, at least four expert panels from academe and government found development had outstripped Alberta’s ability to manage it and that the province’s monitoring system was inadequate.
In a statement, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said the United Conservative government was consulting Albertans on coal development. She attacked McPherson’s attempt to involve the federal government in what she called Alberta’s business.
“It is extremely disappointing to see the NDP fight to take away Albertans’ constitutional rights,” she wrote. “Only Albertans should decide how they want their natural resources developed.”
Savage did not address concerns about the province’s regulatory system.
McPherson previously tabled an 18,000-name petition in support of a federal review for Montem’s project.
First Nations, landowners and environmental groups have also asked federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to step in with a federal review for several of the exploration projects. Wilkinson has until July 1 to decide whether or not to step in on Tent Mountain.
Asked in the House about the proposed legislation, Wilkinson said, “We understand and have heard the concerns of many in Alberta with regard to the eastern slopes.”
He said the federal government is concerned about coal-mining risks such as selenium contamination and is working on new coal-mining effluent regulations.
“We want to ensure any projects are environmentally sustainable.”
In response to a vigorous public outcry, the Alberta government has paused any further lease sales, cancelled work permits for leases in the most sensitive areas and restored the protections it cancelled, at least temporarily.