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Albertans deserve meaningful consultation on coal policy

The Alberta government has promised to start consultations on a “new, modern coal policy” on March 29. Yet, it has so far announced no details indicating this will be a meaningful or transparent process.

In fact, all signs point to the government using the consultation to clear the way for more coal mining.

Without any public input, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government quietly axed the 1976 Coal Policy last May — a policy that had protected large swaths of land along the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains from open-pit coal mining.

After widespread opposition, including from many within the UCP’s own support base, the government temporarily reinstated the policy in February, promising it would use consultations to inform a new policy.

But there’s little reason to expect anything but smoke and mirrors from this process. The government’s track record in putting the coal industry’s interests first speaks for itself.

Consult with people, not industry

The UCP has demonstrated that it is eager to allow the coal industry to set the province’s policy agenda.

It has been well documented that the coal industry and its representatives knew about the rescinding of the 1976 Coal Policy long before the public heard about it.

One Australian coal company assured investors in 2019 that the Alberta government was already changing the policy to allow more open-pit mining in the Rockies. Another company described the UCP as being “engaged and supportive” of its exploration activities. The Alberta government has also offered letters of support to coal companies, promising less red tape and a more pro-development environment.

Even after the 1976 policy was reinstated, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage made it clear that the Alberta government is not giving up on the coal industry.

Cancel new exploration permits

The UCP government has also not cancelled major new exploration permits that were approved after it lifted the 1976 policy last spring.

It is allowing six major new projects to proceed in the Eastern Slopes, despite reinstating the 1976 policy and promising to first consult with the public about the future of coal in the province.

Together, these potential coal mines cover 650 square kilometres, with a footprint that would be more than three times as large as that of the Teck mine in B.C.’s Elk Valley. And they’d be permitted to carry out their destructive drilling and road-building activities well into next year.

In fact, the road-building activities approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator for these six projects already exceed legal limits in some parts of Alberta.

David Luff, a former civil servant who helped shape and implement the 1976 policy under Premier Peter Lougheed, says that if the government was serious about getting public input, it would have paused those projects while consultations take place.

“If, as a result of the consultation process, it is determined that coal development shouldn’t occur on those areas, Albertans will be on the hook for millions of dollars of compensation to the coal companies for the exploration work they’ve done,” he told the Council of Canadians. “It just doesn’t make sense for Albertans to be at risk for that.”

Duty to consult First Nations

The government of Alberta has also failed at every step in its duty to consult with First Nations.

It did not consult these communities when it decided to revoke the 1976 policy. And it has made no mention of how they will be consulted in the crafting of a new policy.

Two of the largest First Nations in the province have already written letters to coal companies expressing their opposition to new mine proposals in the Rockies. The Siksika and Kainai, which together account for about 70 per cent of the Treaty 7 Indigenous population, say new mines would be an infringement on their Treaty rights.

Latasha Calf Robe, a member of the Kainai First Nation and an organizer with the Niitsitapi Water Protectors, launched a petition signed by more than 18,000 people asking the federal government to intervene. The petition was tabled in the House of Commons this week, and calls for a rigorous study of the impact of all proposed coal-related activities on Treaty and Aboriginal rights, water quality, species at risk, and the environment.

In a townhall last month, Calf Robe said that the Eastern Slopes are one of the few remaining areas in southern Alberta that support the traditional livelihoods and lifestyles of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

The UCP government has a duty to respect the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Crown and First Nations living in Treaty 7, Calf Robe added. Expanding coal mining without consultation only continues the legacy of broken treaty promises.

Sham consultations won’t rebuild public trust

The UCP is desperate to rebuild public trust after tens of thousands of Albertans — from all walks of life and political stripes — rose up to oppose the expansion of coal mining.

But if the government is serious about valuing public input, it needs to do a lot more than launch staged consultations.

It needs, first of all, to heed the advice of the majority of Albertans — almost 70 per cent — who have already said, loud and clear, that they don’t want any mining in previously protected areas.

The government must also immediately halt all the new exploration projects that were approved since last spring and fulfill its duty to respect First Nation Treaty rights.

Listening to Albertans also means launching meaningful consultations — not just smoke and mirrors.

To be truly credible, the process must be open, transparent, and led by a panel of independent experts. We will also need to be vigilant about just what the province chooses to do with the public input it receives. There are no details yet on whether it will in fact be obliged to act on what it hears.

Alberta’s resources belong neither to the government nor to the coal industry. It is the people who live on and care for the land that should decide their future.

Join us in making sure the Alberta government doesn’t put the needs of the coal industry first.

Click here to join us in demanding that the Alberta government halt coal exploration. Help us ensure transparent and meaningful consultation around the new Coal Policy to protect the Rocky Mountains and headwaters.