As the MLA for beautiful Banff-Kananaskis, I know how important it is to balance our province’s economic recovery with the conservation of our beloved Rocky Mountains; the very Rocky Mountains that have made Alberta such a uniquely attractive business and tourism destination for decades. The topic of coal development has been in the news a lot lately, which I’m sure you are well aware. I’d like to take an opportunity to provide you with more information on this complex file, in hopes it will ease some of the concerns you may have. I first and foremost want to assure you that absolutely no open pit coal mines or any other type of industrial activity will ever be approved for development in Kananaskis or on the environmentally sensitive lands of the Eastern Slopes. The Kananaskis Recreation Policy and the Restriction on Coal Activities on Areas of Public Land in Eastern Slopes Directive prohibit any such thing, and our government will not be repealing either of these pieces of legislation. Nonetheless, our government has heard loud and clear from Albertans all across the province that they still have deep concerns about coal development in these areas. To offer further reassurance of our commitment to balance industrial development with environmental conservation, our government swiftly made the collective decision to pause all future coal lease sales on Category 2 lands and cancel all of the leases awarded during the December 2020 auction. As of February 8, we have also made the decision to reinstate the 1976 Coal Policy while reaffirming our commitment to ensuring no mountain-top coal mining will ever be permitted in Alberta’s eastern slopes. When we initially made the decision to rescind the 1976 Coal Policy last year, we did so to manage coal development in an equal way to other mineral resources like oil and gas. Yet the people of our province spoke, and it quickly became clear that they expect us to manage coal differently. The reinstatement of the 1976 Coal Policy will only be a temporary measure, and we have now begun the process of developing a new, more modern coal policy through extensive public consultation which will be launched shortly.
I’d also like to specifically address the Grassy Mountain Coal Project which has resoundingly attracted the most concern from Albertans across the province. This project proposes to construct and operate a metallurgical coal mine that will help meet the world’s demand for steel. Australian-owned Benga Mining Ltd. obtained the lease for these lands and began their environmental review back in May 2015, long before our government assumed office in April 2019. This review is a joint provincial-federal effort between the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. Six full years later, this review is still ongoing. Such a joint review is required for all larger-scale resource development projects to ensure that they meet both Alberta and Canada’s stringent environmental standards.
The lands on which the Grassy Mountain project is proposed have been designated for coal development since the 197Os, nearly 50 years. In Alberta, Crown land leases are predesignated with specific uses. Common predesignated uses often include grazing, random camping, tourism development, recreation or coal. Companies do not obtain a leasehold without a predesignated purpose and then apply to designate the lands for their wishes. Rather, parcels of land are predesignated with a use that best suits the land’s topography and those interested in using the land for its predesignated purpose may apply to do so. As mentioned above, the Grassy Mountain lands in question have been designated as a coal lease since the 1970s. Grassy Mountain was never in its history designated as Public Recreation Area. Because of this, despite terminating the 11 coal leases awarded in the December 2020 auction, we chose not to terminate Benga Mining’s leasehold for Grassy Mountain. To do so six years into business would send a chill to investors from all industries looking towards Alberta as a place of opportunity. Further, projects like these, if approved, have the potential to employ thousands of Albertans at a time when we need economic growth most. I want to assure you, however, that this does not overshadow our commitment to managing Category 2 lands differently going forward. It is also important to note that simply because a company obtains a leasehold for coal development does not mean they will be guaranteed to actually develop resources in that area or that a project may proceed. Once a company obtains a lease, they must then go through the environmental review process. This review process is rightfully extensive as demonstrated by the fact that the Grassy Mountain Coal project has now been going through the review process since 2015 and still has not been given an approval six years later. It is also important to note that the review process is entirely apolitical and is conducted by regulators and environmental experts without any influence whatsoever from whatever government is in office at the time. Our government continues to proceed with the federal-provincial plan to phase out emissions from low-quality thermal coal in domestic electricity production by 2030, and is actually ahead of schedule on this endeavor. We have also worked alongside renewable operators to significantly deregulate the green energy market, and have since welcomed over $2.4 billion of private investment in wind, solar, and cogeneration projects to Alberta. We have committed over $10 million to conserve over 22,000 hectares of environmentally-sensitive land in the province since taking office, and recently announced we will be expanding the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland provincial park in northeast Alberta to add 143,000 hectares to the largest contiguous area of protected boreal forest in the world. The demand for high-quality metallurgical coal – very different from thermal coal, and a necessary component of making steel – will continue to grow and be an area of interest and investment by private industry. Yet this must always be balanced with environmental protections when looking at any new coal development in the future. Our government is committed to ensuring Alberta continues to be a world leader in both responsible resource development and environmental conservation. As we strengthen our focus on economic recovery and revitalization, we will continue to make common-sense decisions to create certainty and flexibility for industry, while listening to the desires of Albertans ensuring sensitive lands are protected for the current and future benefit of all Albertans.