Rescinding the Alberta Coal Policy opens headwaters in the eastern slopes of the Rockies to open-pit coal mining

Calgary – The Government of Alberta has rescinded A Coal Development Policy for Alberta (1976; the Coal Policy). CPAWS Southern Alberta is concerned about the impacts this will have on Alberta’s treasured mountains and foothills along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. “There are currently no other land use plans or policies that directly replace the environmental zoning and restrictions under the Coal Policy” says Katie Morrison, Conservation Director for CPAWS Southern Alberta. “This leaves sensitive headwaters regions and treasured landscapes that provide habitat for species like grizzly bear, elk, and threatened native trout, at risk to the disturbances that come with surface coal mining and increased exploration.”

Since 1976, the Coal Policy has provided important land use zoning frameworks which have informed management and development of coal mines along the eastern slopes region of Alberta.

The Coal Policy’s Land Classification System prevented coal development on Category 1 lands and restricted development to underground or in-situ mining under Category 2 lands along the eastern slopes. The Coal Policy Category 2 covers 1,458,000 ha of the headwaters areas that provide the majority of drinking water to downstream communities in Alberta and across the prairies. With the removal of the coal policy, open-pit coal mines will now be permitted on these sensitive lands.

The Government’s announcement claimed that modern regulatory, land use planning and leasing systems make the Coal Policy obsolete. However, Alberta currently does not yet have regional land use plans for most of the eastern slopes region, and the existing South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) does not include the equivalent zoning of highly ecologically sensitive areas or where mines can and cannot be developed. In fact, the SSRP states that source water is the highest priority for the region and that no changes to the Coal Policy should occur until such land-use planning is in place. This raises concerns that Alberta’s sensitive headwaters regions will be at an increased risk of cumulative industrial impacts moving forward.

“These changes mark yet another rollback of environmental protections that came with no public consultation,” adds Morrison.

These policy changes will have real consequences for our important southwest Alberta Rocky Mountains and foothills, particularly in the headwaters of the Oldman River, where coal exploration is increasing. We are concerned that this announcement could lead to a boom of coal mine proposals in an already threatened landscape.

Our eastern slopes are treasured areas for ranching, fishing, camping, and outdoor experience – which could be lost to increased coal development in the region. Without long-standing environmental legislation like the Coal Policy, we need to ensure appropriate landscape protections and management planning are in place to ensure we are investing in the long term quality of our drinking water and intact habitat for vulnerable plant and animal species through appropriate land use planning.