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Alberta response to uproar over coal mining doesn't change very much

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Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage, at left. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said yesterday coal leases from the Kenney government's controversial December 2020 auction have been cancelled, but this does not mean as some news media reported that the province has reversed its plan to expand coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

To say it was unpopular to sell a 15-year lease for 1,853 hectares of the pristine southeastern Alberta region for $66,562.62 so that a couple of Australian coal mining corporations could rip the top off a mountain and haul away coal for making steel was a considerable understatement.

The sale caused a huge uproar, with more than 100,000 signatures collected by a couple of petitions opposed to the plan for open-pit mining to remove a fossil fuel that has shrinking market and the potential to leach poisons into drinking-water supplies in Canada and the United States.

So Savage undoubtedly spoke the truth when she said in a short statement published yesterday on the government's website that "we have listened to the concerns raised in recent days."

That included opposition carolled by a trio of prominent popular Alberta singers, Corb Lund, k.d. lang, and Paul Brandt -- which if nothing else illustrates the value of having celebrities on side if you want to change public policy.  

There's no question there was a day Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative government would have just arrogantly bulled ahead in a situation like this, ignoring all opposition, no matter how in tune with the mood of the province. But bad polling numbers do tend to concentrate the minds of governing parties halfway through their mandates.

Savage's statement is full of qualifiers and needs to be parsed carefully for its real meaning, which is certainly not as cut and dried as yesterday's news coverage suggested.

So if you're wondering if the government is on the ropes, or just playing rope-a-dope and letting its opponents tire themselves out, the answer is probably rope-a-dope.

Savage said, "we will pause future coal lease sales in former Category 2 lands." (Emphasis added.) So right there is a pretty strong signal that there is no plan afoot to restore the Peter Lougheed government's strict 1976 prohibition against coal mining on the eastern slopes.

That policy was quietly removed without consultation by Savage on the Friday before the May long weekend during the first wave of COVID-19. Sneaky is as sneaky does.

And while Savage said "this pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected," she immediately went on to say, "coal development remains an important part of the Western Canadian economy, especially in rural communities."

The reaction of the ranching and farming communities would certainly suggest otherwise, but this nevertheless is a clear enough statement of the government's intentions.

"We are committed to demonstrating that it will only be developed responsibly under Alberta's modern regulatory standards and processes," Savage also said, although it is important to remember that the UCP's idea of modern regulatory standards does not necessarily mean stronger or more effective.

Indeed, it appears to mean the opposite. Consider the mandate of the government's so-called Ministry of Red Tape Reduction, which is to "reduce the regulatory burden on job creators to encourage investment, boost Alberta's competitiveness. …" Certainly not to protect the environment or make workplaces safer.

Moreover, Savage concluded: "This decision has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review."

So, while "pausing" a dangerous plan to mine a dirty fossil fuel from an environmentally sensitive region based on questionably optimistic predictions of economic benefits is a positive development, it does not indicate real commitment to either protecting the region or diversifying Alberta's economy away from fossil fuels.

There is no plan to restore the Lougheed government's 1976 protections.

Eight other coal leases sold in May are not affected by this slight policy change.

The 11 cancelled leases -- which could well be back with revisions as soon as things settle down -- amount to only 0.13 per cent of the area leased by the government since the Lougheed coal policy was rescinded.

The government continues with its effort to have the courts toss an application for judicial review of the decision to revoke the coal policy without consultation.

Rope-a-dope.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

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