Oil and Gas+ but Not Coal: Thoughts on Alberta’s Mining Imbroglio
Alberta’s coal-fired political conflagration has revealed a broad and deep anti-coal animus. Polling tells us that about 70 percent of Albertans oppose the Kenney government’s efforts to increase coal mining in the eastern slopes. Contributing to this alliance are those who dislike oil and gas as much as coal. More interesting are those who want oil and gas but not coal (OGNC) to help drive Alberta’s economy. From the OGNC viewpoint, it’s a matter of cost-benefit analysis: coal mining simply yields fewer economic benefits at higher environmental cost than oil-and-gas production.
Because the OGNC crowd includes a lot of disaffected conservatives, coal mining carries political as well as environmental risks for the Kenney government. Understanding this, the government recently reinstated the mining constraints of Peter Lougheed’s 1976 coal policy, which it had unceremoniously rescinded last spring. That has not placated the OGNC constituency, however, because the government clearly wants to keep the door open to some eastern-slopes mining. It is time for the UCP government to cut its losses and simply shut the door on new coal mines in this iconic and environmentally sensitive region. It should rely on updated OGNC thinking.
OIL AND GAS BUT NOT COAL: A BIPARTISAN PERSPECTIVE
Brian Jean, the former leader of the Wild Rose party and co-founder of the UCP, recently declared himself “proudly pro-oilsands and pro-resource development” but “not convinced that the small net benefits we get from any new open-pit coal mines will be worth the price.” There it is: oil and gas but not coal.
When Bill Trafford, president of the anti-coal Livingstone Landowners Group, appeared on Danielle Smith’s talk show last summer, he similarly argued that the economic benefits of strip mining the eastern slopes were too small to offset its high environmental costs. Oil and gas, he maintained, offered a better cost-benefit ratio, and its “sustainable production” could be “ethically and environmentally conscious” to an extent impossible for coal mining. As far as fossil fuels were concerned, Alberta should continue, even in these difficult economic times, to favour oil and gas at the expense of eastern-slopes coal. The OGNC perspective exhibited by Jean and Trafford is widespread.
Widespread enough to cross party lines. Alberta’s NDP voters may not, on average, like oil and gas as much as UCP voters do, but many of them don’t want to shut that sector down completely and they much prefer it to coal. At the same time, you don’t get 70 percent opposition to eastern-slopes mining without a goodly number of coal-averse UCP voters; nor do you get the torrent of opposition to coal that has come from local governments in heavily UCP provincial constituencies. (A partial list: High River, Turner Valley, Airdrie, Nanton, Longview, Banff, Canmore.)
Today’s OGNC conservatives build on a tradition that goes back to the famous Coal Development Policy adopted in 1976 by the government of Peter Lougheed (a good friend of Bill Trafford’s father). In terms Trafford and Jean would later echo, Lougheed talked about coal mining raising greater “cost-benefit” considerations than applied to oil and gas. This, he explained, is why his government had decided to promote oil and gas, including the mineable oil sands, and constrain coal.
The Lougheed policy is, of course, what much of the brouhaha has been about. Let’s take a closer look at just what the Kenney government rescinded and then reinstated.
LOUGHEED’S 1976 COAL POLICY: CONSTRAINT WITH LOOPHOLES
Lougheed’s policy constrained coal especially in those parts of the eastern slopes covered by the first two categories of its fourfold land classification (see map), with mining banned entirely in category 1 and heavily restricted in category 2. As Don Getty, Lougheed’s energy minister, made clear, this meant forfeiting much of the metallurgical or steelmaking coal found in this iconic and environmentally sensitive region. “Some potential developments,” Getty readily conceded, “will leave our province and go elsewhere.” That was a price the government was willing to pay, indicated Lougheed, in order to preserve the “potential for recreation and tourism” in this particularly “beautiful” region.
Lougheed’s policy did not completely shut the door on eastern-slopes coal, however. Places where mining had already occurred or was still underway – so-called “legacy mining areas” like Grande Cache, Canmore and the Crowsnest Pass – were included in category 4, where fewer restrictions applied. Let’s call this the “legacy” loophole of Lougheed’s policy.
The policy hedged its bets even in category 2 where, as mentioned, there was no outright ban. “Limited exploration,” said the category-2 description, “may be permitted under strict control” but “surface mining” – i.e., strip mining, open-pit mining, and mountaintop removal – would “not normally be considered at the present time” (emphasis added). This “not normally” loophole clearly left the door ajar, but a long succession of governments declined to pass through it. The “present time” for mining constraint lasted a long time. In practice, category-2 restrictions proved heavy enough to sustain a decades-long moratorium on surface mining in these lands.
The 1976 policy fostered no such moratorium on the lower quality “thermal” coal found elsewhere in the province. Lougheed was not prepared to forfeit the use of this coal to generate electricity and neither were his successors, until recently. As late as 2000, coal accounted for 80 percent of Alberta’s power generation. Not only could thermal coal be strip mined at lower environmental cost outside the eastern slopes, but the 1976 policy considered it “a clean, low polluting source of thermal energy” because of its “low sulphur content.”
If the “legacy” and “not normally” loopholes for eastern-slopes mining were narrow, the “thermal coal” loophole was very wide indeed. That changed – reversed, actually – in recent years.
CLOSING ONE LOUGHEED LOOPHOLE, EXPLOITING THE OTHERS
As noted by Sonya Savage, the UCP’s energy minister, the Lougheed policy’s approval of thermal coal “predated our modern understanding on climate change.” Alberta now wants its cleaner natural gas to reduce coal-fired power generation both abroad and at home. Coal’s contribution to the provincial grid was down to about 25 percent in 2020 and is slated, with bipartisan support, to end by 2030. In fact, it may vanish as early as 2023. The “thermal coal” loophole is closing, to the delight of today’s bipartisan OGNG alliance.
To the dismay of that alliance, however, the phaseout of thermal coal was offset by a planned comeback of eastern-slopes metallurgical coal. In the mid-2010s, as thermal coal declined, proposals emerged to revive the mining of metallurgical coal at two “legacy” sites in the Crowsnest Pass: Tent Mountain, where mining had ceased in 1983, and Grassy Mountain, which had not been mined since 1958. Both projects would involve mountaintop removal on a scale much grander than anything previously seen in the region. (The Grassy Mountain project has completed an environmental assessment before a joint federal-provincial panel, which is scheduled to report in June 2021.)
From the OGNC perspective, closing the “legacy” loophole for such mining is as urgent as closing the “thermal coal” loophole. Just as the risk of climate change justifies the end of coal-fired power plants, so the heightened risk of selenium pollution in sensitive headwaters requires the end of eastern-slopes mining.
Selenium, a trace mineral that is common, safe and even essential at low concentrations, is released at harmful levels by the extensive surface operations that now dominate coal mining. Teck Resources, which operates several surface mines in B.C.’s nearby Elk Valley, has discharged selenium into a watershed on the western side of the continental divide at levels high enough to raise concerns from downstream U.S. states and to incur sizeable federal and provincial fines, including “the largest-ever penalty” – $60M – “under the [federal] Fisheries Act.” For opponents of the Tent Mountain and Grassy Mountain projects, the risk of similar selenium pollution on this drier side of the continental divide, in the headwaters of Alberta’s more limited southern watershed, is just too high.
The Kenney government disagreed, arguing that modern environmental assessment on a project-by-project basis would ensure responsible development of a valuable resource, and that new state-of-the-art mining and land management would solve the problem of selenium pollution. Such claims seemed laughable to the oil-and-gas-but-not-coal alliance. Bill Trafford noted that Teck, having already devoted much time and money to the problem, recently allocated an additional billion dollars to finding an answer. “If you’re spending that much money to fix it,” he said, you “don’t have a solution yet.”
The environmental risk increases with the number of mines in the eastern slopes, and the Kenney government clearly foresaw more than just a couple of legacy mines in the Crowsnest Pass. It also wanted to lift the moratorium on surface mining in the more extensive category-2 portion of the eastern slopes. At a minimum, that meant exploiting the category’s “not normally” loophole. Rachel Notley’s NDP government had set the precedent for this in 2016 with respect to Ram River Coal’s proposal to mine a category-2 site in west-central Alberta. Margaret McQuaig-Boyd, energy minister at the time, wrote a letter advising the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) that “the coal category 2 designation does not preclude surface coal mine development.” What “would not normally be considered” in 1976, she argued, could now be contemplated if environmental protection had been adequately addressed “through the normal regulatory process.” The Kenney government embraced McQuaig-Boyd’s reasoning and encouraged increased exploration in category-2 lands.
Then it went further.
RESCINDING AND REINSTATING THE LOUGHEED POLICY
The McQuaig-Boyd approach essentially erased the distinction between the category-2 and category-4 portions of the eastern slopes. Identical project-by-project consideration would now be applied everywhere. Category 2 of the 1976 policy had become redundant, superseded by the application of modern environmental protection procedures to individual proposals as they emerged. Category 1 was also redundant because mining in its various parks and preserves was banned by other laws and policies. Concluding that it was time to scrap Lougheed’s now obsolete policy, the Kenney government quietly rescinded it, effective June 1, 2020.
That put the cat among the pigeons! What had been an important regional controversy about mining in the Crowsnest Pass became a much wider provincial furore. While Lethbridge had been concerned about its water supply, High River and many other communities became worried about theirs. Communities in relatively unaffected watersheds piled on. Hostile media commentary exploded. So did angry letters to politicians at all levels. Ranchers went to court to challenge the government’s failure to consult. It was recission of the 1976 policy that generated 70 percent opposition to eastern-slopes mining and caused the broad anti-coal alliance to coalesce in effective ways.
So intense and persistent was the controversy – so much did it put Kenney “between Albertans and their mountains,” in Jen Gerson’s evocative phrase – that the government eventually relented. On February 8, 2021, just days after the premier had declared Lougheed’s coal policy a “dead letter,” minister Savage apologized for the government’s mistake and reinstated the policy, promising extensive public consultation on a more modern one. She even issued a directive to the AER forbidding mountaintop removal (the bête noire of much anti-coal rhetoric) in category-2 lands.
At the same time, however, Savage reiterated McQuaig-Boyd’s observation that category 2 does “not preclude” all coal development, and she left six major exploration projects in place. The anti-coal alliance took this to mean that the government would contemplate strip- and open-pit mining of valleys and mountain sides, even though mountains could no longer be decapitated. This looked like a failure to take selenium pollution seriously since all surface mining techniques produce it.
That Savage expressly did not forbid mountaintop removal at the Tent Mountain and Grassy Mountain sites confirmed the government’s willingness to risk polluting critical headwaters. Her toleration in the Crowsnest Pass of the aesthetic desecration she forbade elsewhere also offended OGNC sensibilities, as did Rachel Notley’s willingness (since modified somewhat) to consider new metallurgical mines in legacy areas.
Reinstating the 1976 coal policy has by no means laid the controversy to rest. New videos, websites and webinars regularly appear, critical letters and columns keep coming. About a month after reinstatement, the council of Clearwater County, which includes about half of energy minister Jason Nixon’s constituents, voted unanimously to send the government a letter regarding its continuing concerns about eastern-slopes mining, becoming the 28th Alberta community to do so. “One of Canada’s natural wonders is our Rocky Mountains and we’re fortunate to have them in our backyard,” said Clearwater councillor Theresa Laing, adding that “coal mining and these wonders are a bad juxtaposition.” An especially bad juxtaposition because, as Lethbridge biologist Lorne Fitch noted three days earlier, the mountains and foothills in our “backyard” are “meagre by comparison” to B.C. “We depend much more on our eastern slopes, especially as a primary water source.”
The government can put an end to this imbroglio by calling a halt to new coal mining in the eastern slopes. It should do so because the environmental and political risks of mining outweigh its benefits.
The most obvious benefit is jobs, but at full operation the Grassy Mountain mine is projected to yield about 400 positions (and some additional indirect employment). That’s not nothing, especially in tough economic circumstances, but even several new mines of this size would only modestly ameliorate Alberta’s unemployment woes.
But doesn’t every bit help in times of economic distress? Not if the “bit” on the benefit side of the ledger is outweighed by a “lot” on the cost side, as it is with coal mining. The government’s hydrogen strategy offers better odds. Yes, hydrogen, which (among other things) will eventually replace coal in the steelmaking process. The government reports “estimates that by 2050, the global hydrogen sector could generate US$2.5 trillion per year and create 30 million jobs.” That’s a lot of jobs, and the government means to help Albertans get their share; it intends to position the province “among the world’s top suppliers of low-emission and affordable blue hydrogen.”
We should be paying more attention to the jobs hydrogen can produce than to those it will replace, as well as to the jobs the UCP wants to promote in tourism, infrastructure, natural gas, petrochemicals, and many other areas with better cost-benefit ratios than coal mining. Instead, the government has allowed itself (and us) to be distracted – nay, preoccupied – by an unproductive controversy about coal. The path to economic recovery lies elsewhere.
The OGNC perspective remains the best guide to that path, except that it needs a diversifying amendment. It should become OG+NC – i.e., oil-and-gas-and-tourism-and-infrastructure-and-hydrogen-&c-but