The Elk Valley Coal Mine near Sparwood B.C. -- how metallurgical coal is mined in Canada. Credit: Teck Resources via AlbertaPolitics.ca

The plan to approve coal developments on the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains is another thing that remains on the United Conservative Party’s agenda — if not for 2022, at least for some point in the future after the 2023 election is out of the way. 

This is another tidbit that can be prised out of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s responses to Global News provincial affairs reporter Tom Vernon’s Dec. 7 interview, which the broadcast network didn’t release until New Year’s Day. 

Vernon tossed the premier a softball on this one, rather suggesting to him where an acceptable answer might lie. Coal policy on the Eastern Slopes? “Is your government still looking for a way to find coal development on that while still managing concerns with the environment from area landowners?” he asked.

Premier Kenney responded: “Our general approach is to support responsible resource development, as we’ve always done in Alberta.”

Now, it must be said right here that the UCP has only been the government in Alberta for less than three years, and even in that short time this statement is hardly credible. 

That said, one supposes, it was what any government leader would say about resource development, and indeed what pretty well all governments do say when contemplating such activities. This would even include the NDP government in the province next door to the west, a point we’ll return to in a moment. 

Getting back to Kenney first, however, he illustrated his point about how responsible his government is being about this by saying: “We have a consultation, a panel, talking to Albertans about how do we get that right balance when it comes to coal.”

There are a couple of important hints in this simple statement. After all, Kenney’s government tried in May 2020, on the Friday before a long weekend and with zero public consultation, to remove the Peter Lougheed Progressive Conservative government’s 1976 ban on coal mining on the Eastern Slopes. 

When a lease auction in Southern Alberta was revealed later that year, a storm of controversy was unleashed — much of it from Albertans who make up core supporters of the UCP government in rural areas dependent on agriculture.

If Kenney, Energy Minister Sonya Savage, and Environment Minister Jason Nixon had imagined they could employ the usual wedge politics to divide rural Conservatives from urban greens, as they like to describe environmentally conscious citizens, they were soon disabused of this notion. 

Which is why the committee that Kenney referenced was set up, to mollify the anger among UCP supporters with the coal-mining scheme. 

Since the interview with Kenney was recorded, the committee has reported, although the government is treating its recommendations as a state secret, for the moment at least. 

Savage, at least, acknowledged the reality of public opposition in her response to the controversy. Kenney, by contrast, seems to still think it can be made to go away. 

“You know, there have been coal mines, up and down the Eastern Slopes in Alberta since European people arrived here in the 1870s,” the premier went glibly on. “So this has been a constant part of our economic history, and there are entire communities like Grande Cache, for example, that depend on it. 

“I’m not one of those cold hearted people who just says, ‘We’re gonna turn those into ghost towns,'” he stated. 

This is an important statement. It tells us more clearly than anything else where Kenney intends to go with this, and what his core wedge issue will be again — probably with a dash of “ethical coal” thrown in. 

Whether or not his strategists will try to dissuade him, given the looming election, scheduled for 2023, is another matter.

Which is where the B.C. NDP comes in. Premier John Horgan’s government is no paragon of environmental responsibility either, but perhaps Kenney thinks he can swing a little support for coal mines in the Rockies the UCP’s way with some faint praise for his western counterpart. 

“In British Columbia, under an NDP government, they have over 10 coal mines operating to support global demand for steel-making, for example, and thermal coal for Asian power plants,” he told Vernon. 

“So, I think if they can do this responsibly under an NDP government in British Columbia, I believe in principle we can do it responsibly, on a limited basis, here in Alberta, to find that right balance between environmental preservation and job creation.”

Alas, there is no responsible way to mine or use thermal coal in the planet’s current circumstances.

The market for metallurgical coal, used to make steel, is still strong, but can be expected to diminish over time as well. 

And there is no way anyone is going to mine metallurgical coal in Canada, on the Eastern Slopes or anywhere else, but by using open-pit, surface mining techniques. And the number of people employed in such operations is quite small. 

Kenney surely knows all this too. 

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...