Alberta Coal Campaign History and Outcomes

Why the Edmonton Chapter Acted

In June 2020 the UCP Alberta Government unilaterally removed the 1976 Coal Policy – designed to protect the source of much of our prairie water supply in the south Eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.  The UCP cancelled the 1976 policy, claiming it to be out-of-date, and after all – only a policy, with no legal clout. 

1976 Coal Policy Promises on Coal Mining

The 1976 Coal Policy included the following promises:

  • Disclosure to the public
  • maximum benefits to Alberta citizens
  • environmental impact assessment
  • public Land Surface Reclamation Plan
  • Alberta Department of Environment input
  • no irreparable harm
  • limited exploration
  • economic development
  • fair royalties and taxes

After months of criticism of the 2020 UCP cancellation of the 1976 Coal Policy, and extensive risk assessment, it was clear that almost none of the promises of the 1976 Coal policy would be honored effectively.

Public Opposition

The post -June 15, 2020 “shark fest” by coal mining companies to secure mining leases, exploration approvals and permits to access lucrative seams of metallurgical coal, drew an unprecedented outcry from Albertans of all persuasions.  Environmental groups, landowners, ranchers, farmers, media, scientists, academics, and lawyers embraced the public outcry from June 2020 into late 2021 (see References).  

Risks of Coal Mining

Opponents  claimed that the UCP sell-off was done behind closed doors, illegally, and at great risk to mountain ecologies critical to the supply of water to millions downstream.  A number of consistent risks of coal mining on the eastern slopes were identified :

  • Coal mining puts our water source at risk by leaching contaminants such as Selenium into streams and rivers
  • Exploration and development of coal mines destroys habitat for wildlife, including species at risk like caribou, grizzly bears, and native trout.
  • Coal mining uses large quantities of water, reducing the amount available for fish, wildlife, agriculture and municipalities downstream.
  • Hiking, camping, and other recreation/tourism is less enjoyable near open pit coal mines.
  • 1st Nations communities and traditional ways of life would be seriously altered.
  • The economic benefits of coal for Alberta are already shown to be minimal. 
  • Coal burned in Asia for steel produces the same climate changing emissions as burned here.

Exploration Impacts

This graphic illustrates the impact of coal mining exploration on the landscape.

2021 Edmonton Chapter “Say No to Coal” Webinar

In January 2021, The Edmonton Chapter Council of Canadians formed a “Say No to Coal” group to join the many opponents of the UCP plans for coal mining. A Zoom Webinar conducted on Feb 10 included well-known opponents of UCP plan : Latasha Calf Robe of the Blackfoot 1st Nation, Kevin Van Tighem, long-time writer on the impacts of coal mining, Ian Urquhart of the Alberta Wilderness Association and Drew Yewchuk, a lawyer with the U of Calgary Public Interest Law Center.

C of C Edmonton Chapter advertised this event across Alberta, contacting supporters of the C of C, member groups of the Alberta Environmental Network conservation organizations and all who we felt would be opposed to the UCP coal mining proposal.  The results of our Edmonton Chapter effort included over 800 registrants and 1100 letters sent to Alberta Government officials including Premier Jason Kenney, Minister of Energy Sonya Savage, Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon and Canadian Minister of Environment Jonathan Wilkinson. 

We do not know exactly what impact our webinar and letters had on the UCP plans.  However this indicates the ability of a small group of dedicated volunteers to generate needed action in the ongoing struggle for a clean energy future, a healthy environment and a sustainable economy.

Alberta Beyond Coal Sign Campaign

In March 2021 the Council of Canadians and Alberta Environmental Network partnered to sponsor the Alberta Beyond Coal sign campaign. The campaign ran from March to September 2021 and delivered 3,933 signs to 142 Alberta communities.

Members of the Edmonton Chapter of the Council of Canadians delivered signs and helped organize the Edmonton region part of the campaign.

Milestone Victories

The movement to save the Eastern Slopes and our rivers from coal mining won several milestone victories in 2021. The provincial government reinstated the 1976 Coal Policy pending new policy, suspended leases and exploration on category 2 lands and established the Coal Policy Committee to collect public input on the issue. A federal – provincial environmental review rejected the Grassy Mountain Project and the federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change ruled that the Tent Mountain project and all other projects producing over 5,000 tonnes of coal per year would be subject to environmental assessment.

As positive as these victories were, they constituted delays and process improvement not a ban on coal development. It is not even over for Grassy Mountain as the proponent is disputing the decision in court.

Indeed, by late 2021, we still had no clear assurances that the Alberta UCP government would meet the demands of Alberta citizens to phase out coal mining in Alberta eastern Rocky Mountains.  In fact, in August 2021, some coal leases were transferred between companies, suggesting business-as-usual dealings between the UCP and metallurgical coal companies.  Now in March 2022, even the federal government appears to be bowing to ongoing coal industry lobbying by weakening proposed regulations on coal mining effluents.

Coal Policy Committee Report

In March 2022, the Government of Alberta Coal Policy Committee’s Final report : recommendations for the management of coal resources in Alberta was made public.

The government accepted the report’s recommendations and suspended all approvals for coal exploration and development in all four categories of land including land in which coal mining had been allowed under the 1976 Coal Policy. However, four “advanced” proposals – Grassy Mountain, Tent Mountain, Vista Expansion and Mine 14, are being allowed to continue through the regulatory process.

As recommended, the government committed to deciding about whether or not coal development can go forward through the land planning process. This is a better process than the unilateral way 2020 decision to sell multiple coal leases on sensitive category 2 land was made. Done well, the land planning process opens the door to widespread consultation and consideration of multiple land uses, values and cumulative effects.

However, doubt still remains as to the application of CPC recommendations, in particular regarding Regional Land Use Plans for the Rockies and ongoing risks of the four mines not fully cancelled.

by the provincial government As a result most coal exploration and development has been suspended and a better process is in place to decide whether or not coal mining will go ahead. While we celebrate these victories, the battle will not be over until coal mining on the Eastern Slopes is banned forever.

The Need for an Ongoing “Say No to Coal” Campaign

In the final current analysis, most informed opponents remain doubtful that the CPC Report to Alberta Energy, provincial and federal legislation and other mechanisms such as the AER will deliver anywhere near what is demanded by opposition to coal as below.

Consistent Demands around New Coal Mining in Alberta
  • Halt immediately the issuing of coal exploration permits along Alberta’s Eastern Slopes (section 67 of Alberta’s Responsible Energy Development Act).
  • Permanently cancel all coal leases and applications in ecologically sensitive Categories 1 and 2 lands (as per 1976 Coal Development Policy). Cancel all other leases issued after May 2019.
  • Establish an independent expert Review Panel, along with public hearings, to study and recommend what industrial activities should be allowed in Alberta’s Rockies and Foothills. Impose a moratorium on all coal development in until the AB government responds with binding legislation.
  • Comprehensive, inclusive, and transparent land-use planning, and cumulative effects assessment of the Eastern Slopes
  • Create a Regional Plan based on science, input from all Albertans, including Indigenous people as required under the Constitution Act, 1982. 
  • Stop currently planned changes to water allocations, including from the Old Man River Basin, and prioritize community, agricultural and ecological needs and health
  • Reclamation of lands disturbed by coal exploration activities to be completed and financed by coal companies in a specified time
Citizen Support for the Edmonton Chapter Ongoing Coal Campaign

The battle to stop the mining, combustion and cleanup of this Industrial Revolution fuel is not over. We are seeking people who would support  the Edmonton Chapter’s No to Coal Working Group and our affiliate Alberta Beyond Coal campaign in moving Alberta towards a Just Transition to less destructive, sustainable forms of energy and economy.  Our Symposium for March 22 2022 World Water Day will provide opportunity to express your support.

Our campaign will consist of work on Thermal Coal (burned to provide electrical energy) and Metallurgical Coal (burned to create energy for steel production primarily). Below are a few backgrounders, as well as ideas on how you could participate with our Coal Working Group.

Action on Metallurgical Coal – The Edmonton Chapter continues to support the many organizations listed (see attached Coal References) to monitor and close the door on new coal mines in the eastern Rocky Mountains. Action on Thermal Coal – The majority of proposed new coal mining leases are metallurgical, and they have captured massive public attention since the cancellation of the 1976 Coal Policy in 2020. Meanwhile, the mining and impacts of thermal coal have escaped the public spotlight.

We hear about the phase out of all new coal in Alberta by 2030, and coal-fired electrical power plants e.g. Genesee, are switching to natural gas. However, at least one large project – Vista Expansion near Hinton AB – is being pushed by Coalspur to be the largest thermal coal mine in North America.  As well, and in spite of international federal commitment (Powering Past Coal) to halt any new coal mines or expansions in Canada, the export of thermal coal, mainly to China, Korea and Japan, and India appears to lie outside federal mandates. 

But, coal burned in China is no better than that burned in Canada, with the same climate changing GHG emissions.  And locally, the mining of thermal coal has similar environmental, social, and economic risks to those of metallurgical coal, with relatively small economic returns  – let alone tax and royalty returns to governments.

Some Possible Action on Coal

  • A webinar to mobilize action on new and existing coal mines
  • Support for a “just transition” for those who have relied on coal mining
  • Clean up/Restoration of Historical and Existing Mines
  • Other – TBA
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