Alberta’s coal policy outdated

Industry and environmentalists wrangle over future direction

Alberta’s policy on how its vast stores of coal are mined and used is 38 years old and the provincial government is under pressure to update it. Opposing interests are calling for changes to the 1976 Coal Development Policy for Alberta leaving the government to strike a balance between the desires of domestic and foreign coal markets as well as the environment and economy.

In terms of reserves coal is far and away the most abundant fossil fuel in Canada. According to Alberta Energy with 33 billion tonnes still in the ground Alberta holds 70 per cent of Canada’s coal supply. Alberta has nine of the country’s 24 mines following B.C. at 10 and well ahead of Saskatchewan’s three and Nova Scotia’s two.

Alberta is also its own best customer. The province has long relied on burning coal to produce the majority of its electricity. We have six coal-fired power plants all north of Red Deer. Our capacity to burn it also rose 14 per cent between 2002 and 2012. Finally the industry and government are keen on opening avenues to supply coal to Asia notably China and India as demand in both countries is immense.

A May 2013 memo from the Coal Association of Canada told Alberta Energy that because of all these conditions the government “needs to revise and update the 1976 Alberta Coal Policy. The policy is outdated and redundant” and that Alberta needs a policy “that creates certainty for the coal industry and investors.” To aid the government in writing new regulations the Coal Association of Canada has formed a committee to hammer out what industry would like to see in the updated policy. It will then submit its wish list to Alberta Energy.

It would seem coal mining is the business to be in except that many in Alberta promote moving away from it.

A 2013 report about the negative health effects related to the coal industry points out that while coal production in Alberta is increasing Ontario’s coal plants will be phased out this year. The report titled A Costly Diagnosis was a collaboration between the Pembina Institute Lung Association of Alberta and NWT Asthma Society of Canada and Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. It also states Alberta is the only Canadian province with no renewable energy strategy and adds that Nova Scotia which was once more dependent on coal than Alberta has legislated that 40 per cent of its electricity grid will consist of renewable electricity by 2020.

Within Alberta environmental groups such as the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) are pushing the government to increase environmental protections in its policy update.

AWA conservation specialist Brittany VanderBeek says the coal industry wants the opposite asking for a policy that would allow greater access to sensitive or more remote areas especially those lands classified in the long-standing coal act as “Category 2.”

Category 2 states the policy “contains lands in the Rocky Mountains and Foothills for which the preferred land or resource use remains to be determined or… local areas of high environmental sensitivity.”

“We’ve been pretty strongly letting the government know that if they do update their coal policy that the kind of environmental standards that the land classification has right now would remain” says VanderBeek. She says mining and reclamation technology has improved greatly over the years but Alberta typically sees strip and open-pit mining rather than underground mines which have a smaller impact on the landscape.

She also says the Category 2 areas the coal industry is interested in contain headwaters such as the source water for the Bow and Oldman rivers which provide drinking and irrigation water for much of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Because of Category 2 area mines’ possible proximity to headwaters “any sorts of spills or any contamination of selenium or any of those other heavy metals is definitely a big red flag for us” she says.

Concerns over water pollution from coal operations have heightened since the Obed Mountain Mine’s coal slurry pond burst on October 31 2013 spilling 670 million litres of waste into tributaries of the Athabasca River.

Bob Curran of the AER says the accident is still under investigation as are the effects of the river of the slurry which contained selenium arsenic lead mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Alberta Energy spokesperson Tim Markle says the government is well aware of the need to address the old policy and the competing viewpoints on how that should be done. He says the policy is not being formally rewritten at this time but “there’s a fair amount of movement on it.”

“The people involved in policy development right now are looking at how coal fits into regional planning for example. And they’re looking at the various opportunities for current and future market conditions; looking at new technology and the environmental impacts they may have or not have on things” Markle says.