Strip Mining the Eastern Slopes

...more scars upon the land.  John Denver Rocky Mountain High


The UCP government is encouraging coal strip mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.  They found willing partners in Australian mining companies.  These companies acquired leases in the eastern slopes of the Rockies and lobbied the UCP government to ease restrictions for open pit mining of steel making coal.

An open pit mine

When carrying out changes, the UCP’s tactics are to move quickly, limit public scrutiny and position changes to environmental regulations as ‘cutting red tape’.  They defend this approach by pointing to their election mandate.  But when they decided to support open pit coal mining, they were not following an election commitment. And worse yet, they chose to be as devious as possible.

A Sneaky Government

After four years of discussion during the Lougheed era, a system was put in place that mostly preserved the Rocky Mountains from coal mining.  In some areas of the eastern slopes underground mining was permitted.  And in less sensitive areas open pit mining is accepted.

But on a Friday night before the May long weekend the UCP abolished the policy. It claimed it was redundant.  They said that much better environmental policies are in place today.  That characterisation is flawed. The policy that prevented open pit mountain top mining in areas that were sensitive, was suddenly changed. 

Then the provincial government opened bids on 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) of previously mostly off-limits areas to strip mining.  140,000 hectares were quickly snapped up by mostly Australian mining companies. That is an area roughly the size of the land mass of Calgary and Edmonton combined. Then the Alberta Energy Regulator leapt into action, permitting hundreds of drill test sites and roads, sometimes with one day turnarounds.  The government further sweetened the offering by reducing royalties to 1%, reducing regulatory approval levels and planning to rework water allocations to benefit the mines.

Perhaps the UCP’s calculation was that the Ralph Klein era could be repeated. Back then there was general public acceptance of the trade-off between oilsands development with its wealth, jobs and prosperity over environmental costs.  

But what was missed in the calculation was:

Rocky Mountain High

  • Albertans identify strongly with Rockies and foothills. It is the playground for many and supports grazing reserves and tourism. So, forever changing a mountain top for export coal and maybe a thousand jobs with a 20-year time horizon seems a bad bargain.
  • The reputation of Alberta’s high regulatory standards is threadbare.  The public is now on the hook to clean up abandoned oil wells and there are oilsands tailing ponds that defy easy reclamation. Furthermore, the regulatory agency took a 22% budget reduction and laid off 200 workers in the past year; so their oversight capacity and ability to examine the cumulative impact of numerous mines is weakened.

Whiskey for Drinking – Water for Fighting 

  • The eastern slopes are the headwaters that supply water for millions of Albertans, along with southern Alberta irrigation farmers and cattle ranchers.  Of particular concern is the heavy metal selenium that gets released from rocks after the overburden is removed.  This can be a hard to remove dangerous pollutant. And it can kill and deform fish, build up slowly in water courses, and impact human health and agriculture. The risk it represents is one of the reasons for the steady drumbeat from more and more municipalities and provincial organizations.


  • As the plan became clearer the UCP were blindsided when some iconic Alberta cowboy singers slammed the plan on social media.  That sparked 100,000 people to sign petitions and groups sprang up to share information and organize. Several First Nations challenged the government about consultation responsibilities on resource development.  All of this led to even more opinion pieces and media exposure.

The UCP government has now found themselves in a mess of their own making.  Their snappy responses are ‘trust the process’ and the ‘old policy was a dead letter’, ‘we need the jobs.’ The Premier is putting up a brave front, but the blitzkrieg approach isn’t going well.

Severely normal Albertans should hope that UCP can pause long enough to produce a coherent and convincing plan for Albertans before they put the public purse at risk by making expensive commercial commitments that we will be forced to unwind.