A growing wave of grassroots opposition is challenging the Alberta government’s plans to pursue open-pit coal mining in the Canadian Rockies and encourage Australian companies to remove the tops off mountains.
And the opposition is coming from all political directions.
Last week, for example, the popular Lethbridge-based musician Corb Lund released a statement and a video on Facebook decrying the province’s recent elimination of a long-standing coal policy that protected the mountains.
“Iʼm writing this to tell you that I 100-per-cent oppose these policy changes. In my opinion, itʼs a very big threat to much of our fresh water and our landscape, and a terrible idea for Albertaʼs long-term well-being,” wrote Lund.
On Jan. 18 Alberta’s energy minister acknowledged the government was facing mounting opposition and announced the province was cancelling 11 coal leases and “pausing” future sales.
Meanwhile, signatures on two petitions on Facebook opposing the UPC government’s pro-coal mining moves surged past 100,000.
Last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Jason Kenney government quietly revoked the province’s 44-year-old Coal Policy.
The visionary policy, created by former premier Peter Lougheed after extensive public consultation, said most of the eastern slopes of the Rockies should remain off limits to mountain-top removal in order to protect water security, wildlife and the area’s beauty.
Kenney’s axing of the policy immediately opened up 1.5 million hectares of the Rockies for coal development, including the headwaters of major rivers in the South and North Saskatchewan river basins.
Australian coal companies, which lobbied for the abolition of the policy, now hold leases covering approximately 800 square kilometres in the southern and central Rockies.
The companies typically describe the Kenney government as “engaged and supportive” and plan to export metallurgical coal to China and other expanding industrial economies.
In a December 2018 mining presentation, one Australian executive explained that two factors had drawn his company to Alberta. One was low coal royalties at one per cent and the other was the stagnation of bitumen mining, which had made the Alberta government desperate for revenue.
“It is all about the timing,” emphasized the executive, “particularly with the downturn with the oilsands sector. It makes our ability to produce this project on time on budget a little easier.”
While the Coal Association of Canada and the Australian miners congratulated the government for killing the Coal Policy, ranchers, tourist operators and environmentalists asked why ordinary Albertans hadn’t been consulted.
That’s exactly what musician Lund and many other Albertans are now demanding as Albertans slowly learn about the consequences of Kenney’s pro-coal initiative.
“In my opinion, it is inappropriate and short-sighted for government, regardless of party, to make decisions of this magnitude without wide consultation with the groups that could be irreversibly affected by open-pit coal mines here in the foothills; ranchers, downstream farmers, drinkers of municipal water, First Nations communities, sportsmen, conservation and wildlife agencies or the public in general,” Lund wrote.
Lund wasn’t the only prominent Albertan to sound the alarm last week. Fellow country music star Paul Brandt, who has worked with the Kenney government on human trafficking, tweeted that “Corb Lund is right. This is a big deal and a bad deal.”
Celebrated singer k.d. lang also joined the chorus: “There is no doubt in my mind. Opening the Rockies to coal mining is an irreparable and short-sighted mistake.”
Alarmed by the growing opposition, which now includes ranchers, irrigators, farmers, landowners and entire municipal districts, Environment Minister Jason Nixon went on a media blitz to defend the government’s pro-coal policies.
On 770 CHQR radio he told host Danielle Smith, a former Wild Rose politician, that the Coal Policy was outdated and no longer needed. He added that companies still had to comply with the province’s “stringent regulations” and that “there will not be coal mines plastered all over the place.”
But Nixon did not tell listeners that he had written a letter of support to an Australian coal mining company in October 2019 promising to lower taxes and decrease red tape.
Nor did he say that the government was changing water allocation rules in southern Alberta, after Benga Mining, a company owned by Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart, actively lobbied for those changes.
Open-pit coal mines not only pollute local waterways with selenium and other toxic chemicals but consume enormous amounts of water.
For example, in a recent joint federal-provincial public hearing on the proposed Grassy Mountain coal project in the Crowsnest Pass region of Alberta, not one member of Nixon’s ministry participated to question the adequacy of the proponent’s environmental assessment.
While federal government scientists cast doubt on the quality of Benga Mine’s ill-defined plans to protect trout and other endangered species, Alberta government scientists contributed nothing to the hearing.
As a consequence, many Albertans aren’t buying Nixon’s explanations.
Last week, High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass and his town council sent a strong letter of opposition to Kenney, Nixon and Energy Minister Sonya Savage. The letter asked for an immediate reinstatement of the Coal Policy.
Snodgrass noted that you can’t change a parking space in High River without public consultation, but somehow it’s OK for the provincial government to remove a policy protecting vital water supplies for two million Albertans without so much as a tweet.
“The only people they talked to was the Coal Association of Canada and the coal companies, so that’s just wrong, it’s juvenile,” the mayor told Okotoks Online. “They need to rewind that and get the public consultation put back in place so the people of this province have a say in what goes on in these lands and not just government and not just industry.”
Ranchers and three First Nations will go to court this week seeking a judicial review of the Kenney government’s decision to end the policy that protected the mountains.
Nearly a dozen organizations, including one Australian coal company, also want to intervene in the case.
The Kenney government has moved to strike down the application on the grounds that the government can legally change any policy it wants.
Many small ‘c’ conservative Albertans argue Kenney’s government has betrayed the best interests of the province and favoured foreign coal interests.
“Some days I have to admit it feels the oxygen is being pumped out of the room when you see the dysfunction and mendacity of modern politics, but in particular of the so-called conservatives, who have moved away from the values that I used to vote for,” wrote Gordon Cartwright, a well-known rancher in southern Alberta in a Facebook post made by conservationist Kevin Van Tighem.
“The 1976 Coal Policy was a good example of a far-reaching vision that water and emblematic watersheds are more important assets than ephemeral profiteering from a generic resource, that carries irrevocable collateral damage.”
Meanwhile, a Calgary artist has erected a three-metre-high steel monolith off the historic Cowboy Trail (otherwise known as Highway 22) by the Oldman River crossing to raise public awareness about a half-dozen open-pit mines now proposed for the southern Alberta region.
The shimmering sculpture reflects the splendour of its surroundings: fescue grasslands, snow-capped mountains and the rugged beauty of the Oldman River.
“This land holds the bones and dreams of our ancestors,” wrote artist Elizabeth Williams on an Instagram post. “This soil remembers the thunder of buffalo hooves and... still fosters wild grasses. These mountain-fed waters are the lifeblood of southern Alberta.”
A House of Commons petition to the federal environment minister calls on Justin Trudeau’s government to cancel the Grassy Mountain coal project’s application.
The petition, now closed, said the project “will destroy the upstream water and water quality” of the headwaters of the Oldman River that supplies nearly a million Albertans with fresh water.
Members of the joint panel review have until June 18 to determine if the Grassy Mine proposal is in the public interest.