Don’t Savage the Foothills

Government is placing a strong focus on creating the necessary conditions for the growth of export coal production. 

May 15th, 2020 Alberta Energy

The United Conservative Party’s (UCP) economic vision is largely predicated on resource extraction

And that myopia in the vision led them to stumble into a public quagmire by quietly removing long standing regulations governing coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. They encouraged foreign investors to purchase leases and start exploration for strip mines in the foothills.  That led to a rush of leases on land previously off limits to surface mines (154 leases on 460,000 acres). In the name of cutting red tape the regulatory agency expedited approvals for 235 km of new roads and 724 test pits. 

Photo Courtesy Eunice Sloan

Then things blew up  

While a few communities were onside with the prospect of new jobs, alarms were going off elsewhere.  

  1. Strip mining Alberta’s treasured landscapes caused 36,000 people to join a Facebook group in opposition. 
  2. The heavy metal selenium is mostly dormant in the rocks today. But when removed as ‘overburden’ selenium will leach into waterways. There are currently no practical or economic containment measures.
  3. Strip mining the headwaters disturbs a fragile ecosystem for fish and wildlife.
  4. There is risk of contaminating the downstream water supply for humans, irrigation and livestock.
  5. Assigning southern Alberta’s scarce water resources to wash coal is an issue for those who compete for water. 
  6. Pollution from coal dust from prevailing and often strong westerly winds is difficult to mitigate.
  7. Damage to tourism and limiting recreation use offends other user groups.
  8. Very limited royalty and lease sale revenue does little to strengthen the economic case.

All of these issues are made more concrete by the example of the strip mines in Northeast BC.

Strip mining in British Columbia

In the face of the uproar, Energy Minister Savage announced that no ‘mountain top’ would be strip mined. 10 leases (4,600 acres) were cancelled.  Savage re-instated the old policy and promised a consultation on coal development. However, the regulator continues to process exploration approvals and most mining companies continue with exploration activities.

But stakeholders are on red alert!  Municipalities are writing letters to government; citizens are bombarding their MLAs with emails.  Environmental organizations are mounting ‘save the foothills’ campaigns. Ranchers are hiring consultants to study the environment. Some indigenous communities claim they were not sufficiently consulted. Petitions urging federal intervention are being tabled in the House of Commons. The Opposition New Democrats who didn’t oppose strip mines while in power have introduced a bill in the legislature.

Now even country singers are calling out the government on YouTube and Twitter.  

70% of Albertans oppose strip mines and many in the public are wary of government’s sneaky behaviour. 

The Minister launched the promised coal development review

  A committee of five individuals will carry out a public consultation and report its recommendations to the Energy Minister in November.  The Committee’s terms of reference are narrowly focussed as its online survey; carefully avoiding land use and environmental challenges.

The public is watching and so are the feds.  

  • There is one mine waiting for federal approval and its water and air pollution are going to get a hard look.  
  • The feds chose this moment to fine Teck Resources’ coal mine a whopping $60 million for polluting streams just across the border in BC. 
  • They also declared Alberta ‘Official Fish’ as the Bull Trout which reside in the headwaters to be endangered.  
  • Yet to be played is the ‘cumulative effects’ card should the Alberta approve several strip mines.

Severely Normal Albertans should understand that the UCP are on a collision course with an active and engaged segment of the public. Government says “trust the process” but the process isn’t credible. The review panel may find it impossible to thread the needle. Meanwhile the feds must be enjoying the irony of calls from rock-ribbed conservative southern Albertans demanding federal action.