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Why Danielle Smith Sounds Just Like an Australian Billionaire

The premier tortures logic to now embrace the industry narrative on coal mining in the Rockies.

Andrew Nikiforuk 15 Mar 2024The Tyee

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Premier Danielle Smith has offered a new explanation for Alberta’s support for so-called advanced coal projects in the Rockies, including a highly controversial proposal rejected by provincial and federal regulators in 2021 for environmental and economic reasons.

Critics argue that Smith’s new narrative that “advanced coal projects” are largely abandoned mine sites that need to be reclaimed, and that only more mining can do that, bears little relation to the truth. Or the facts.

However, it does solidly echo claims made by Northback Holdings, a company owned by Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart.

The firm wants to revive a rejected metallurgical coal mine on Grassy Mountain in Alberta’s historic Crowsnest Pass previously proposed by Benga Mining, another Rinehart property.

Regulators declared Grassy Mountain a dead project. But Rinehart, a powerful force in the mining world, is not used to taking no for an answer. In addition to launching three unsuccessful court challenges against the project rejection, she formed Northback in 2023 and promptly applied to drill new exploratory wells and a water diversion on the grounds that Grassy Mountain never did die but remains alive as “an advanced coal project.”

Danielle Smith tried to justify such a loophole in a weekly interview with 630 CHED radio in Your Province. Your Premier. She explained that public opposition to Jason Kenney’s plans to open up the eastern slopes to largely foreign coal miners forced the government to reinstate the 1976 Coal Policy just two years after the government secretly axed it in 2020 with no public consultation.

The reinstated policy temporarily suspends all coal mining in the Rockies with the exception of four grandfathered mines considered “advanced projects.”

Smith then explained that the four “advanced projects” (Tent Mountain, Grassy Mountain, Vista and Mine 14) were excluded from the reinstitution of the Coal Policy because they were located on disturbed land and needed to be cleaned up anyway.

“If you look at those sites, they had already been disturbed and they have already been developed and there’s already existing infrastructure there,” Smith said on her weekly radio show.

“Quite frankly, when they were decommissioned they were not reclaimed particularly well, and I think there has been some appetite in the community to get them reclaimed properly and to reconsider whether or not they should be mined at the same time.”

However, two of the four projects have nothing to do with legacy mining or bad reclamation. Mine 14 and Vista are new mines or expansions of new mines. In fact, the Vista coal mine project, which started in 2019, was described by industry “as one of the largest undeveloped coal mines in North America” in 2020.

Although the Tent Mountain project was originally proposed on an abandoned mine site, the Australian firm Montem Resources killed those plans in 2023. It now wants to pursue a pumped hydro and wind project.

That leaves Rinehart’s Grassy Mountain project, which provincial and federal regulators rejected as anathema to the public interest in 2021. After failing to reverse the decision in three courts, Rinehart, one of Australia’s richest miners and a climate change skeptic, last year renamed her company from Benga Mining to Northback.

Ever since then her corporate reincarnation has been furiously lobbying the government for an unprecedented project resurrection. The first step in that resurrection concerns a series of applications for more coal exploration wells on the site now before the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Just last month Energy Minister Brian Jean wrote a letter to the AER suggesting that it should consider Grassy Mountain an “advanced project” — an act many critics considered as direct political interference in the workings of an allegedly independent agency.

A dubious ‘reclamation’ rationale

Not surprisingly, Smith’s pro-coal comments directly echo Northback’s key selling point for its project. The company claims that its proposed massive open-pit mine will occupy only unreclaimed land, scarred by coal trenches, that was mined over 60 years ago. But this damage “will only be restored if the project proceeds.”

Craig Snodgrass, mayor of High River, called that corporate sales pitch preposterous. He explained that the old mining footprint occupies only 274 hectares of the mountain while Rinehart’s project would excavate an area nearly six times greater — 1,521 hectares — in the Oldman River watershed, resulting in serious selenium pollution downstream.

Another startling comparison: while historical underground and surface mines on Grassy Mountain extracted 14 million tonnes of coal over a 55-year period from 1913 to 1968, the rejected project plans to extract 93 million tonnes over 23 years.

Snodgrass disparaged the explanations offered by Danielle Smith, who lives in the city he now runs as mayor. “For the premier to say this is a great opportunity for reclamation and that we are going to go in and clean up this mine but we are going to demolish a whole bunch of stuff in the meantime... is absolutely ridiculous,” he stated in an interview with Shaye Ganam on 630 CHED radio.

Country musician Corb Lund, who lives downstream of the project, said in a tweet that the mayor was 100 per cent correct: “Calling Grassy Mtn a reclamation project is the foreign coal companies and the govt trying to bullshit people. You can’t get selenium out of the water. Ask the Elk Valley in B.C.” Elk Valley is home to coal mining that has polluted waterways with selenium for decades.

Snodgrass also noted that railway infrastructure needed to support the Grassy Mountain project would open access to seven other proposed but suspended projects located just north of Rinehart’s property.

“Obviously, this government wants this project to go through,” he said. “It is very concerning. There is nothing good about these coal mines.”

‘Simply bizarre’

Katie Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Southern Alberta Chapter, told The Tyee that she agrees with Snodgrass’s assessment.

“It sounds like Northback has fed the premier a line about reclamation that she is repeating without actually knowing the full story.”

Morrison points out another big problem with Smith’s new coal narrative.

She notes that the government’s definition of an advanced project has nothing to do with previous disturbance.

A ministerial order suspending coal exploration and development in the eastern slopes in 2022 clearly defined an advanced project as one “for which the proponent has submitted a project summary to the AER for the purposes of determining whether an environmental impact assessment is required.”

She added that Grassy Mountain doesn’t qualify for that definition. When a project has been rejected by regulators, “it is no longer an active project so should not be considered advanced. Full stop. This government can’t reinterpret the ministerial order to fit their narrative.”

Nigel Bankes, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Calgary, told The Tyee that the premier’s comments also omitted central questions bedevilling thousands of Albertans opposed to destruction of watersheds by open-pit coal mining. “How can a project that has been comprehensively rejected be a project at all? And how, if it is no longer a project, can it still be an advanced project?”

He said Smith’s suggestion “that projects were designated as advanced projects in order to facilitate proper reclamation is simply bizarre.”

He also said that the province, at any time, could direct companies to properly reclaim their messes without designating projects as advanced.

During her weekly radio interview, Smith also argued that the decision for a project should be a local one. While campaigning for the leadership of the UCP, she said if people in the Crowsnest Pass wanted the project, she would consider it.

Since then, Northback has been funding community projects including donations for a school nutrition program in a region that was left impoverished by coal mining that left about 60 years ago.

A century ago, the Crowsnest Pass bustled with underground coal mining followed by limited surface mining in the 1960s. But it has never seen any development on the scale of Rinehart’s rejected Grassy Mountain project.

Snodgrass noted that the impacts of coal mines are not local at all. In fact, the environmental effects of coal mines flow downstream, where they dramatically affect water quality and quantity over time.

“This is about Alberta’s eastern slopes.”  [Tyee]

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