Alberta Politics
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta Video).

In dizzying turnaround, Alberta abandons plan to drop Lougheed-era coal policy … for now

Posted on February 09, 2021, 12:47 am
9 mins

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,” Ms. Savage told the tightly controlled, 16-minute, Monday morning virtual news conference, at which only four reporters asked questions. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“First, Alberta’s government will reinstate the full 1976 Coal Policy,” Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.”

Conservationist and author Kevin Van Tighem (Photo: Facebook).

“The 1976 Coal Policy says that surface mining will ‘not normally be considered’ in Category 2,” Mr. 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 Ms. 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.”

Calgary pollster Marc Henry (Photo: Calgary Chamber of Commerce).

“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. 

Author and environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk (photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“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. 

17 Comments to: In dizzying turnaround, Alberta abandons plan to drop Lougheed-era coal policy … for now

  1. Dave

    February 9th, 2021

    Well it seems the lady is for turning in this case after all and it was even admitted mistakes were made. Ms. Savage was the public face of the turning, or climb down, if you prefer. Who made the mistakes was still left a bit ambiguous, as was what the mistakes were, but I suppose this is progress for a government that generally doesn’t apologize or back track. Things must have been getting pretty bleak politically for even this modest effort.

    I think at this point, the self inflicted damage has been mostly been done. Yes, the long consultations will probably go on safely past the next election. The UCP has been burned and does not want to touch this hot stove issue again. So the coal policy is reinstated and the UCP will scramble to keep parts of its grand coal plan, although even that may be politically too difficult now.

    So Ms. Savage was put out to announce the climb down with some humility, while Premier Kenney no doubt licks his wounds privately, tries to regroup and stay out of sight for a while, at least until more favorable news, if any, comes up. Mr. Niliforuk is right, this debacle is very damaging to the UCP, partly because who they alienated here and where they live. These are key constituencies the UCP can ill afford to lose.

    As for the tricky case of Pastor Coates, the challenges just keep coming for Kenney these days, don’t they? I suspect Kenney has given this issue a bit more thought than the coal policy into which he stumbled into so haphazardly. So perhaps he will be a bit better prepared to deal with this one, or given recent performance, maybe not.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    February 9th, 2021

    The UCP is only good at deceiving Albertans, and we are all paying the price for their arrogance. There were warnings about how bad the UCP would be, but those went unheeded. Look at the big mess we have now. I think the UCP is going to be finished. It would be very surprising to see the UCP get a second term. Given that the UCP were likely in power by illegitimate means, they might try and pull stunts and tricks to get re-elected, Albertans have to be ready for that, and stop it.

    Reply
  3. Albertan

    February 9th, 2021

    To quote Shannon Phillips, former AB NDP Environment Minister:
    “In my view, the only way to truly demonstrate the UCP isn’t going to eventually let these carpet-bagging companies blow the mountains apart is to cancel and compensate the leases they gave out after the 1976 Policy was rescinded last summer.” We should not be settling for anything less than this and we should be letting the UCP know this, loudly.
    The UCP has demonstrated, again, that their credibility is gone and they can’t be trusted.
    Many of us knew, that if the Kenney UCP attained a majority that things would get bad, and they have. How much worse is it going to get? Remember the pushback on Bill 6? Perhaps, we should be seeing the $multimillions worth of farm/ranch equipment out on the roads/in the local towns, again, to protest what could possibly happen to contaminate and shortage the lifeblood of the ag industry, let alone, what is needed for life for millions of us downstream….our waters.

    Reply
  4. ronmac

    February 9th, 2021

    One of the easily observable truisms in modern political life is that billionaires usually get their way. There may be pitfalls along the way but in the end they get what they want.

    Reply
  5. ayeamaye

    February 9th, 2021

    Where is the discussion of the Grand Cache Mine in this controversy. It’s on the Eastern slopes, metullurgical coal open pit mine. It’s closed isn’t it? Uneconomical. Why start new mines when this one can’t make a go of it. Jason Kenney is grasping at straws. He promised us jobs,jobs,jobs. He was the Messiah of jobs,economy,pipelines. He has delivered nothing.
    You were right to say he doesn’t understand rural Alberta, I don’t think any of these so called conservative governments do, they just pander to get their votes.

    Reply
  6. Abs

    February 9th, 2021

    So it’s off and on, or on and off. They worked away in silence and darkness to remove the 1976 Coal Policy, just long enough to make a deal to mine the eastern slopes. They gaslit us about the headwaters already being polluted, so what does it matter if they’re polluted some more? Then they promised to “pause” further projects, which does not mean “stop”. (Replay of parks strategy.)

    Then Sonia Savage made the statement which should win her the Gaslighter of the Year award, “We’re not perfect.” Textbook gaslighting. We know you’re not perfect, Ms.Savage. Was that ever in doubt? The actions this government has taken were about cunning and deception, keeping public business out of the public eye in order to make back room deals which the majority of stakeholders, i.e. people of Alberta, oppose. Imperfection is a whole other ball game. Imperfection is about making a mistake. This was no mistake. It was deception. This is about the art of the con. It’s more of the same that we’ve already seen from the UCP, a practised routine, not a mistake. It’s so routine that the rubes are onto you, Ms. Savage, and know that the Coal Policy will be reversed again the minute those back room boys sniff out a deal. The arsenic, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

    Reply
    • Political Ranger

      February 10th, 2021

      Yeah, I’m not so sure “… that the rubes are onto you …”, Abs.
      I wish they were but there never has been a demonstration, ever, that they are that bright.

      Reply
  7. Sam Gunsch

    February 9th, 2021

    U of C professor releases a legal review: EXCERPT: ‘… these decisions alone will not restore the status quo as it stood prior to June 1, 2020 when the UCP government revoked the CDP without consultation. This makes the claim of reinstatement hollow – for at least two reasons.’

    legal review: summary analysis of UCP reinstatement of Coal Policy by U of C professor, natural resources law [published 9.feb.2021]

    EXCERPT: ‘In sum, Minister Savage claims that the 1976 Policy has been reinstated, but a lot of activity has occurred between June 1, 2020 and February 8, 2021, and none of that has been rolled back. This is not reinstatement; it is reinstatement-minus what has happened since June 1.’

    EXCERPT: ‘… these decisions alone will not restore the status quo as it stood prior to June 1, 2020 when the UCP government revoked the CDP without consultation. This makes the claim of reinstatement hollow – for at least two reasons.’
    author: Nigel Bankes, Univ of Calgary Professor. Chair of Natural Resources Law. Member of the Alberta Bar. B.A., M.A. (Cantab.), LL.M. (UBC).
    ========
    full post here: https://ablawg.ca/2021/02/09/what-are-the-implications-of-reinstating-the-1976-coal-development-policy/

    Reply
    • Political Ranger

      February 10th, 2021

      Thx Sam, for putting this out.

      Nigel’s review is short but points out a few real problems that only someone who has taken the time to read, and understand, the supporting documents.
      Nigel points out that, “we now have a vehicle for making landscape-level land use planning decisions and a legislative framework for making those decisions legally binding. The problem is that the Government of Alberta has not made effective use of this regional planning process in the context of coal mining activities.”
      Then he says, “At the same time, there is no doubt that the government could have used the SSRP [1 of the 7 Regional Plans, only 2 of which are complete] to decide if and where strip mining might be a possible land use within the planning region and to prohibit it in others. There is also no doubt that it could have done so in a legally binding manner.”

      Does anyone really expect the slow-witted and belligerent Minister of Environment, who is actually running the show in the Cabinet, or equally vacuous Energy Minister to read through – and actually understand, the small mountains of supporting legislation?
      Before they pop off on something to impress their new corporate friends.

      Reply
  8. ART

    February 9th, 2021

    One has to wonder how much support the UCP had from Coal promoters during the election. AP readers will recall how the UCP environment Minister immediately cancelled the NDP Watershed protection proposals around Nordegg. In the same way that Consumer Protection Legislation galvanized Auto Dealers against the NDP perhaps Big Coal would have seen that protection of Watersheds would shut down any future mining in the Eastern Slopes.

    In the same way that Bitumen Mines in Alberta have increased production with while shedding Jobs, Modern Mining is very automated and uses Robotic equipment. How many “Good Jobs” would actually be created in Alberta?

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      February 9th, 2021

      Probably about 200 if the (currently closed) Grande Cache metallurgical coal mine is a guide. DJC

      Reply
  9. Jimmy

    February 9th, 2021

    Perhaps the would be Australian investors are aware of Mr. Kenney’s draconian Critical Infrastructure Defence Act with penalties of fines up to $25000 and six moths jail. Australian coal and gas extraction companies Whitehaven Coal and Santos have, and are having to deal with significant protest at home in Australia at Maules Creek and Narribri, places where protest is treated less severely. We heard the proud boast in 2019 [borrowed from Brian Mulroney’s 1984 comment with Alberta substituted for Canada] that Alberta is open for business. What few may have anticipated at the time that the province had just elected a government that would try to destroy dissent and present us as a third world under regulated jurisdiction ripe for foreign exploitation

    Reply
  10. Just Me

    February 9th, 2021

    Since the Crying & Angry Midget has been slapped around by one expensive failure after another, I wonder how he keeps going?

    He must be holed up in his Sky Palace with a massive supply of his favourite cough syrup.

    Reply
  11. Alan k. Spiller

    February 9th, 2021

    You don’t need to be a genius to see what these phoney conservatives did to us under Klein, Stelmach and Redford. Lost $575 billion in oil royalties , $150 billion in taxes that even Klein’s own daughter Angie was mad at her father about. Then add the orphan well mess and they have have made a horrible mess while Alaska and Norway have done it right.
    Oilmen have been telling me for years that the loses are much higher than what was being reported because it didn’t include the royalties they were giving away on Natural Gas.

    Reply
  12. Paul

    February 10th, 2021

    There isn’t enough coal in the Rocky Mountains to fill Kenney’s Christmas stocking.

    Reply

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