By Lethbridge Herald Opinion on February 12, 2021.
Nathan Neudorf – MLA, Lethbridge East
In the recent weeks I’ve heard many questions and concerns voiced about the 1976 Coal Policy. I know the environment and protection of our natural spaces is a very important issue to Albertans and I want to clear the air about what the recent policy updates actually represent. In response to the concerns raised by Albertans about the lack of clarity on project development, we reinstated the 1976 Coal Policy, including the 4 coal categories, on February 8. With the Environmental Enhancement Act and the Eastern Slopes Coal Policy, and now the return of the four categories, we have stronger and clearer protections for our environment than ever before, but there is more work to do.
One project whose progress has been incorrectly attributed to the policy change is the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, which has been in the review and approvals process for almost six years-well before the coal policy was removed in June 2020. To give some background – the provincial review process began on September 29, 2014, when the project leads submitted a description to the Alberta Energy Regulator. On May 14, 2015, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency made the determination that a federal environmental assessment was required for this project. The government of Alberta has no authority or jurisdiction on this matter, which is why the NDP did not interfere in the process when they were in government and is also why our UCP government has remained arms-length in this process.
With the reinstatement of the coal policy, land will again be placed into four categories, with each category designating the use and environmental parameters of its respective land. To borrow language from this policy, the Grassy Mountain project is located on category 4 land, meaning there is no restriction to the type of development proposed. The spirit of the coal policy has been updated multiple times over the last 45 years with more modern, stringent, and effective regulatory legislation such as the Environmental Enhancement Act and the Eastern Slopes Coal Policy. In other words, little has changed with rescission and reinstatement of this policy as much of the protections and regulations we follow have been in place for many years already. As Minister Savage said on February 8, no mountain-top removal will be permitted at all. Additionally, to continue to protect environmentally sensitive and recreational land along Alberta’s eastern slopes, as well as category 1 lands that will continue to be protected and with no leasing, exploration or development being allowed.
I think it’s vital to ensure our province is a predictable place to invest in, as well as a world leader in responsible resource development. Reinstating the coal categories specified in the 1976 policy does not provide or remove any additional permissions regarding coal development and leases, it only gives the company holding the lease coal rights in that parcel of land, which they can only produce after and if they get all of the requisite regulatory approvals. And just like all other natural resource commodities, after obtaining the rights they will follow a strict regulatory review process. All coal project applications must be submitted to the Alberta Energy Regulator-or a Joint Review Panel if the project requires federal assessment like Grassy Mountain-and are reviewed based on their merit, environmental impact, and other metrics, including water protection and mitigation (which is not even mentioned in the 1976 policy).
There is also some confusion surrounding lease agreements for coal mining. To clarify this, a coal lease does not guarantee that a project will proceed. Rather, a lease grants the mining company first rights to the minerals on the property, it does not permit any exploration or development. Additional permits are required in order to build access roads or drill exploratory holes (which should be fully reclaimed at the end of the project) and all aspects of development are subject to rigorous environmental checks. As previously announced, all category 2 leases will remain paused until consultation with Albertans and companies concludes.
Finally, Albertans are concerned about selenium levels in water sources. This concern is of utmost importance to me, as water is one of our most valuable shared resources. I appreciate the high standards we have in place, and I believe we need to go even further with water purification and protection measures. Mine operators are required to manage selenium levels in water, which includes submitting a selenium management plan to the AER with detailed information about risks and how to mitigate them. On top of this, selenium levels are also routinely monitored as part of Alberta’s extensive river monitoring network. The balance between environmental protection and economic development is extremely important to Albertans. Our government continues to support sustainable development within the framework of strong environmental protections that have been developed over the decades since the 1976 coal policy was introduced.
As the member for Lethbridge-East, I support responsible development of our natural resources and will advocate for fuller measures on land reclamation, as well as the highest levels in water purification and protection standards. I have also heard very clearly that people in Lethbridge are not interested in coal mining in recreationally and ecologically-significant areas of the Eastern slopes, and want their water protected, particularly for our agricultural and food corridor, and I will represent that position in Legislature. As a note in closing, I am working hard to progress some Lethbridge-based innovative thinking on mini-nuclear power generation. This is clean, safe, technologically advanced and I believe, could be a strong substantive option for our energy future. Alberta will continue to uphold our province’s rigorous environmental standards and only allow projects that are proven to be safe, responsible and worthwhile.