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Alberta abandons plan to drop Lougheed-era coal policy -- for now

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Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

In what appears to be a tire-screeching reversal, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage yesterday announced full restoration of the coal policy established by premier Peter Lougheed's government back in 1976.

"An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you've made a mistake, and to fix it, and that's what we are doing here today," Savage told the tightly controlled, 16-minute, Monday morning virtual news conference, at which only four reporters asked questions.

"First, Alberta's government will reinstate the full 1976 coal policy," Savage said, looking none too happy about it.

Even this much had to be a humiliating climb-down for the Kenney government, especially given the confrontational approach initially taken by Premier Jason Kenney and Environment Minister Jason Nixon to the opposition to coal development on the eastern slopes of the Rockies by … well, just about everyone in Alberta.

There are important caveats, however.

In an apparent effort to eat its cake and have it too, the Kenney government left the door wide open to reviewing coal policy again and coming up with "a new, modern coal policy" later.

"The consultation will be vigorous, it will be lengthy, it will hear the input of all Albertans on all views related to coal," Savage insisted. "It won't be a short process."

But she wouldn't tell reporters who asked how long this might take. An obvious concern is that the consultation and review will last until after the next provincial election and then, if the UCP is re-elected, mine approvals will proceed.

Moreover, as conservationist, author and former Banff National Park superintendent Kevin Van Tighem observed in a social media post soon after the news conference ended, "she did not cancel coal exploration work in Category 2 (areas) which means the bulldozers will be hard at work carving up hillsides this summer. And she did not direct the (Alberta energy regulator) to prohibit open-pit mines, only mountaintop removal."

"The 1976 coal policy says that surface mining will 'not normally be considered' in Category 2," Van Tighem explained. "I expect that that wording gives comfort to the coal companies, but it shouldn't give comfort to us. Based on evidence to date, the AER may be using that clause to make a lot of exceptions, so we need to stay vigilant.

"Until the government commits to no surface mining of coal in our mountains and foothills, I'm afraid I don't fully trust them on this," his social media post wrapped up. "The announcement today came across as too carefully crafted, with too many gray corners."

Indeed, while Savage promised any future UCP coal policy would "not allow coal development to jeopardize the mountains, headwaters, foothills, parks and the recreation areas that we cherish," she made it equally clear the government still likes the idea of mining of steel-making coal.

"Metallurgical coal projects if approved through vigorous regulatory processes, can help Alberta business meet increasing global demand for steel and provide good-paying jobs for hard-working Albertans," she said. "And given today's economic climate, that's not something that can be taken lightly."

"We want to make sure that it can proceed responsibly in the future," she said, speaking about the need to ensure there is "a possibility for investment."

So despite the intensity of the opposition the government's plan aroused, yesterday's announcement is not so much about putting a stop to open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rockies as creating the political conditions that make it possible.

Opposition to the plan is fierce, and in every part of the province -- not just among city environmentalists unconcerned about the economic plight of their country cousins, as Premier Kenney recently implied.

A poll published yesterday by Calgary-based Think HQ Public Affairs Inc. indicates that more than three-quarters of all Albertans are aware of the issue, and of that group 69 per cent oppose development of new mines in areas of the province protected by the 1976 Lougheed government policy. Nearly half of that group opposed such mining strongly.

"Albertans are divided on whether or not they feel balanced development is even possible in this instance, but a majority don't necessarily trust the current provincial government to find a reasonable balance between the economy and environment," the polling company said in its analysis.

"Disapproval for the move to open the eastern Rockies/foothills to more coal mining is both wide and deep," the pollster said in a commentary on online research panel, which consulted 1,140 Albertans over five days last week. "Even a majority of UCP voters (56 per cent) say they disapprove of expanded mining in formerly protected areas of the Rockies, while opposition is almost universal among NDP voters (92 per cent)." Almost 40 per cent of UCP voters didn't trust the government they supported in 2019 to do the right thing, Think HQ said.

"This is another example of self-inflicted wounds by the Kenney government, and it's a dangerous one for them," said Think HQ President Marc Henry. "Looking at the scope and depth of the opposition to this policy change, it reminds me of the previous NDP government's introduction of the provincial carbon tax -- the extent and intensity of opposition is very much on par."

But then, as Calgary environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk recently observed, "Kenney doesn't really understand the province and has antagonized almost every conservative group." This includes, apparently, large numbers of normally Conservative-voting farmers and ranchers whose water would be impacted by coal mining on the eastern slopes.

"I don't think he will get re-elected in two years' time," Nikiforuk told the National Observer. "I think he's a one-term premier."

RCMP charge defiant Parkland County pastor

The defiant pastor of a Parkland County evangelical church that has been ignoring pandemic capacity limits has been charged by the RCMP.

Pastor James Coates of the Grace Life Church southwest of Edmonton was briefly arrested by Mounties on Sunday and released with instructions to show up in provincial court in Stony Plain on March 31 to face charges under the Public Health Act.

RCMP and an Alberta Health Services public health inspector attended a service Sunday and determined the congregation was more than double the current restricted capacity level. The commander of the Parkland RCMP Detachment said in a news release the church had been given repeated opportunities to comply with the law.

This may turn out to be an interesting test for the UCP government, which includes many religion-motivated COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaxxers in its voting base.

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: Government of Alberta video screenshot

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