After its about-face on the province’s coal mining policy, the Alberta government has finally kicked off its promised public consultations around a new coal policy.
It has struck a five-member committee that it says will listen to Albertans and make its own independent recommendations.
Albertans have until April 19, 2021, to participate in an online survey to have their voices heard. And the appointed committee is expected to submit its report to the government by mid-November.
But, unsurprisingly, the announcement has failed to address many of the concerns that had been previously raised about the consultation process — and it’s raised a host of new questions too.
1) Why are new coal exploration projects still going ahead?
The Alberta government is allowing major coal exploration activities to move forward even as it conducts consultations on the future of coal.
The UCP approved six major new exploration permits after it lifted the 1976 Coal Policy last spring. Together, these potential coal mines cover 650 square kilometres. And the road-building activities approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator for the projects exceed the legal limits in some parts of the province.
One company, Atrum Coal, has already put its project on hold, amid uncertainty about the future of the province’s coal policy — and after its shares plunged by more than 70 per cent.
“It is hard to have faith in a process when exploration is still happening,” Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society told the Council of Canadians.
If the government was serious about listening to the public, it would put an immediate stop to all exploration activities pending the outcome of the consultation.
2) Why are key experts and stakeholders missing from the committee?
There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the make-up of the panel leading the public consultation. There are no coal industry representatives and the committee members are all independent of the government.
But there are also key voices missing.
“The panel members may be independent, but they are not experts,” Ian Urquhart, conversation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association, told the Council of Canadians.
It’s disappointing that the government didn’t create a panel of experts who could comment on the range of issues raised by coal mining, including water, climate change, natural resource economics, and traditional use of the Eastern Slopes by First Nations, he said.
Also missing from the panel are representatives from environmental NGOs, added Nigel Bankes, who teaches environmental law at the University of Calgary.
There are also no representatives from other stakeholders affected by coal. David Luff, a former civil servant who helped implement the 1976 Coal Policy under Premier Lougheed, told the Council that he’s disappointed not to see the ranching and agriculture community represented.
“It’s ironic,” he said, “because the ranchers were the first Albertans to raise the flag regarding the lack of consultation when the Government rescinded the Coal Policy last June.”
“It will be really important for Committee members to remember that they are now working for all Albertans — not just the sectors or communities they represent,” Luff added. “The Crown’s resources in the Eastern Slopes, including coal, belong to all Albertans — not the Government and certainly not the coal companies.”
3) Will the province fulfill its duty to consult with First Nations?
The government of Alberta has so far failed at every step in its duty to consult with First Nations.
At the press conference announcing the wider public consultation, Energy Minister Sonya Savage promised a parallel “government-to-government” engagement with Indigenous communities affected by coal mining.
But Adam North Peigan, a member of the Piikani First Nation and chair of the Mountain Child Valley Society, says that’s not good enough.
There is a lot of work to be done for the Alberta government to meaningfully meet its constitutional obligation to consult with the First Peoples of the province, he said.
“Government-to-government relationship means that they go out and meet with the Indigenous leadership in the province of Alberta… but the consultation doesn’t really reach grassroots Indigenous peoples,” he said.
“There needs to be a government-to-community consultation.”
North Peigan also said he’s not hopeful that the wider panel — which includes a member of his Nation — will be able to do anything other than rubber-stamp Premier Kenney’s plans to keep coal exploration going.
4) Just what is the panel equipped to do?
There are “no published terms of reference” for the panel, says Nigel Bankes, environmental law professor.
There is very little clarity on the scope of what the committee is being asked to do — and what it is in fact allowed to do, he added. We don’t know, for instance, whether it has the power to commission and fund expert reports on issues such as selenium contamination or the future of world demand for metallurgical coal.
There’s also no clear process for how the panel will act on what it gathers through the online survey. The government has failed to create a clear mandate for the panel on how to move forward.
5) What is the government obliged to do with the committee’s recommendations?
The government of Alberta has also not laid out a clear commitment around just what it will do with the findings of its appointed committee.
While the committee has been mandated to provide advice, there are no mechanisms to hold the government to account in actually implementing that advice.
There have also been no promises that the findings and recommendations of that committee will be transparent and available to the public.
6) How impartial are the survey questions?
The design of the online survey has also raised eyebrows. It contains a number of leading questions while leaving out key queries.
“Surveys are used not just to gather opinion but also to shape opinion and/or steer comments in a particular direction,” Ian Urquhart from the Alberta Wilderness Association said.
It’s disappointing but not surprising that, early into the survey, the government asks about the economic benefits of coal development, he said. It also refers to coal “development” rather than “mining” – as the former has a far more positive connotation.
The survey also doesn’t ask respondents how they feel about the wider consequences of coal mining on the province’s lands and waters, Urquhart said. The questions about environmental impact instead focus only on activities that have already been approved.
7) Can Albertans say no to coal?
A key question that’s left unanswered is whether the public consultation in fact provides people in the province with the chance to say no to coal altogether.
The government seems more committed to finding out from Albertans how they want their coal mined — rather than whether they want coal at all.
According to a new poll this week, 76 per cent of Albertans want more protection for the Eastern Slopes, and 66 per cent oppose any new coal mining.
But the Alberta government has emphasized in this and prior announcements that it has no intention of moving on from metallurgical coal — it remains intent on continuing coal mining in the long-term.
It remains to be seen how the perspectives of this overwhelming majority of Albertans will be reflected in the outcome of the consultation.
8) Why is the consultation limited to coal?
As many have pointed out, the scope of the consultation is very limiting.
“The survey is really narrowly focused on where and how new coal mines can be developed and the regulatory process, not what our overall vision and values are for the eastern slopes,” Katie Morrison says.
The fact that the consultation is being led by the Department of Energy is itself a concern. More than just an energy issue, coal mining concerns water, aquatic health, biodiversity, tourism, and agriculture.
There’s also no clear link between this consultation process and Alberta’s existing land use planning processes, Nigel Bankes points out.
What’s needed is “a shared and common vision for this iconic region of the province — not a single sector resource policy limited to coal,” according to retired civil servant David Luff. And that involves an integrated resource management planning framework that goes beyond the Energy ministry.
So what’s next?
What we’ve seen so far of the consultation process is from far the “gold standard” of what public participation should look like, Ian Urquhart says.
But it nevertheless remains imperative for all those opposed to coal in Alberta to use the online survey to register their voices and their discontent.
We need to send a loud, strong, and united message to the UCP government asking that it immediately halt all exploration activities, and protect the waters, lands, and mountains in the province from any further exploitation by the coal industry.