Coal mining has been a consistent energy source for hundreds of years: whether fueling something as small as a house stove, to trains to multi-million dollar generators, coal has been a source of employment, relatively inexpensive heart and a pillar of the Canadian economy. It is cheap, simple to store and burns easily. The public never really thought much about it.

However, with the focus on environment these days, many of the obvious disadvantages were being paid attention to: creates ugly carbon emissions and the mining of it and no matter which style, would cause damage to the landscape and create nearby pollution with any kind of processing and burning involved. 

Even with all of the economic advantages, there were rules put into place in the mid-1970s which had strict zone guidelines of where coal mining could be done. Back then governments had put into place where there were extra sensitive areas such as heavily forested areas and areas with sources of fresh water. For example, one of the by-product created by mining is the resulting crushed rock makes a by-product called selenium. It doesn’t take much selenium to be toxic and when it rains, the dust will leech into ground water, let alone into open water such as lakes and streams. 

Fast forward to June 2020 and the provincial government quietly rescinded the Coal Development Policy, quietly because there was no official notable public consultation. An Australian coal company had bought the crown land as far back as 2016, perhaps speculating on the fact there was a lot of coal within the area of the proposed Grassy Mountain Mine. Unlike the more well known “thermal coal, the Grassy Mountain Mine would see the mine start at the top of the mountain looking for metallurgical coal used for steelmaking.However, it would literally involve mining in the top and side of the mountain. From an ecological stance, it sounds horrific.

Of course there has to be regulatory consultation involved when starting a new mine but the provincial barriers which would strictly prohibit them in the first place were essentially eliminated in the sense of geographic limits. Ranchers and other landowners were quick to denounce the project such Bobbi Lambright of Livingstone Landowners Group. However, as ordinary and hard working people, it takes time, energy and resources to generate public support and get the information out there. 

Minister of Energy Sonya Savage did say Jan. 18 that there was going to be a pause put on future leases. However, environment groups are still worried. 

“While this is a step in the right direction, this ‘pause’ will have little effect on the ability of existing leases to be explored and developed for coal in the region,” said Katie Morrison, Conservation Director with CPAWS Southern Alberta in a prepared statement. “There are more than 840,000 hectares of coal leases and rights in the Eastern Slopes. This area includes around 420,000 hectares within lands formerly protected as Category 2 (an area approximately the size of Kananaskis Country) that are now, and still with (Jan. 18)’s announcement, open for development as open-pit coal mines. These areas continue to be open and at risk from coal exploration and mine development.” 

CPAWS added that "announcement does nothing to address the impact coal exploration is having on these sensitive areas, nor the ability of the companies on these lands or other existing leases in Category 2 lands to continue moving forward with mine development. Cancelling the newest 11 leases changes very little with regards to the scale of the impact the removal of the Coal Policy has on Alberta's Eastern Slopes. The 11 leases referenced in the government press release were small, covering only 1,800 hectares (0.002% of the area that has already been leased)."

Besides the groundwater and nearby lakes being damaged Lambright said that the Grassy Mountain project would affect nearby streams which feed into rivers, which is turned into drinking water for communities. 

In an exclusive July 2 interview with Prairie Post Kenney had outlined his hopes for the mine helping to fund projects like the possible full twinning of Highway 3.

“We are also working on a potential additional metallurgical coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass there are some big Australian multinational companies that have struck a partnership with the Piikani First Nation and (it’s) quite advanced,” added Kenney. “We have been clearing the way of regulatory hurdles. We may see multi-billion dollar capital investment in new coalminers in the Pas and that would certainly accelerate continue twinning especially on the west side of Highway 3. We want to move those potential coal mines ahead as quick as we can... If we get a commitment on one of those big coal mines before that, I think we may be able to expand the twinning in the medium term rather than the long term.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Alberta’s economy is taking a beating, even with all the limitations created by Covid. Social media has completely changed the economic landscape and small business has suffered. The focus on carbon emissions and the definite shift of the federal government towards a slash in fossil fuel consumption — something the Alberta economy has had a historical strong dependence on.

However, attitudes have changed and mentality is changed. While there are many who are hurting without work and the government talks about trying to stimulate the economy, the understanding of information regarding the environment is extremely influential. If there is a potential to forever harm natural resources, the most important being water, it doesn’t matter how much tax revenue will be garnered, the government is heading into an ugly pit of which it may not be able to dig itself out of anytime soon. 

Ryan Dahlman is managing editor of Prairie Post East.

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