The Alberta government has rescinded the remainder of its 1976 coal policy, formally A Coal Development Policy for Alberta, effective June 1, 2020. The decision brings an end to the land use classification system, which divided provincial lands into four categories corresponding to high-risk to low-risk.
Coal mining was prohibited in Category 1 lands – lands in protected areas. Coal development in lands in Categories 2, 3 and 4 could be permitted, but the approval process was onerous for Category 2, less so for Categories 3 and 4.
Effective June 1, 2020, coal mining will continue to be prohibited on Category 1 lands. For all other lands, approval will be subject to the province’s regular approval process.
The change significantly lowers the bar for approval of coal development on Category 2 lands, and that concerns Nissa Petterson, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.
Category 2 lands are adjacent to protected areas. They’re environmentally sensitive and important habitat for species ranging from grizzly bears and caribou to Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Underground or in-situ mining in Category 2 could be permitted in Category 2 lands under the 1976 policy, but open pit mining required an exemption.
“The policy itself was somewhat of a hurdle to indiscriminate mining exploration and development,” says Petterson in a phone interview with EcoLog News.
In its information letter announcing the change, released the afternoon of the May 15, 2020 long weekend, the Alberta government says that improved policy, planning, and regulatory processes have made the land classifications unnecessary.
Petterson agrees that projects will be subject to the province’s industrial approval process, but that will happen on a project-by-project basis. The land use classification system highlighted the cumulative effects of projects. That may not have been its intent, but that’s what it did, says Petterson, and it’s an important perspective that will be lost.
Alberta says it will now give all current coal lease applicants the right of first refusal for the coal lease applications they hold. It has imposed a 120-day moratorium on new coal lease applications while it settles the status of current applications. By press time, the Alberta government had not responded to EcoLog News’ request for the number of current coal lease applications for Category 2 and Category 3 lands.
However, at least one proponent has applauded the government’s action. In a release, Atrum Coal, an Australian mining company, called the decision “a significant step forward with respect to the targeted future development of the world-class Elan Project.” Atrum’s flagship Elan Hard Coking Coal Project in southern Alberta (Elan Project) is a proposal for an open pit coal mine on Category 2 lands.