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Head of Alta commission on Rocky Mountain coal mining concerned over new applications

At least two members of the group that recommended a pause on coal mining in Alberta's Rocky Mountains are concerned the province's regulator appears to have accepted applications to renew an already twice-denied project, in seeming contradiction of
A sign opposing coal development in the eastern slopes of the Livingston range south west of Longview, Alta., Wednesday, June 16, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

At least two members of the group that recommended a pause on coal mining in Alberta's Rocky Mountains are concerned the province's regulator appears to have accepted applications to renew an already twice-denied project, in seeming contradiction of government policy.

"It is very concerning that this application appears to have been accepted," said Ron Wallace, who headed a nine-month public investigation into how Alberta should deal with proposals for open-pit coal mines on the eastern slopes of the Rockies — a commission that recommended a moratorium on such development the government quickly enacted.

Last week, the Australia-based company Northback Holdings resurrected a proposal for the Grassy Mountain steelmaking coal mine in the Crowsnest Pass region of southern Alberta, applying for three licences from the Alberta Energy Regulator allowing them to divert water, drill and run a coal exploration program.

That's despite a ministerial order issued under former environment minister Sonya Savage. That order says no new applications will be accepted until land use planning for the area is complete or until the regulator receives a letter from either the province's energy or environment ministers authorizing it. 

"The recommendations from the coal committee were very clear," said Wallace. 

Neither condition has been met. 

Bill Trafford, another former member of the committee and an area landowner, said the regulator's reception of Northback's application appears to be going against government policy. 

"Nobody can figure out how the (regulator) could possibly accept an application from these guys," he said. "They should have told these guys there's no point in putting in an application because you can't get past (the process)."

The ministerial order contains an exemption for advanced projects, defined as projects that have sent a summary to the regulator to determine whether an environmental impact assessment is required. Northback has submitted no such documents.

A previous version of the project, then proposed by Benga Mining, did submit those documents. However, that plan was rejected in 2021 by both provincial and federal regulators as not being in the overall public interest. 

Nigel Bankes, a professor emeritus of resource law at the University of Calgary, said those decisions killed that project along with any documentation that accompanied it. 

"In my mind, there is no live application," he said. 

"Benga used to qualify as an advanced project. But when its application was denied, I don't think it continues to benefit from that exception."

Teresa Broughton, spokeswoman for the regulator, said that issue is being considered.

"The (regulator) can accept and process applications for matters related to coal mining if they are considered to be an 'advanced coal project,'" she wrote in an email. "Whether this project is an 'advanced coal project' is something that will be considered as part of the (regulator's) full technical review of the application."

Craig Snodgrass, mayor of the southern Alberta town of High River and an opponent of Rockies coal mining, said both Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz and Energy Minister Brian Jean have assured him they didn't authorize the regulator to accept Northbank's applications. 

"They have not granted any written permission for Northbank to apply to the (regulator) for anything," he said. 

Coal mining became a contentious issue in the province in 2020 when the United Conservative government quietly reversed a policy that protected the Rockies from coal mining. Within months, the province had issued exploration permits for thousands of hectares, sparking a public backlash that led to Wallace's commission. 

Some welcome Grassy Mountain's return.

"(We) are thrilled," said Eric Lowther, a board member of Citizens Supportive of Crowsnest Coal, a group of people mostly from the proposed mine area who seek the economic benefits they say the mine would bring. 

He said the group has met with Northback.

"They are more committed than ever," Lowther said. "This is a great opportunity for our part of the world and we need it badly."

Spokespersons from Northback or the Alberta government were not immediately able to provide comment. 

Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said if the regulator allows Northback's applications to proceed instead of throwing them out, it risks weakening the government's moratorium on coal development everywhere in the province. 

"If the (regulator) accepts and approves this application, it begs to question the strength of the ministerial order in actually preventing other new coal exploration applications anywhere across the eastern slopes of the Rockies," she wrote in an email.

Trafford said he can't understand why the issue is back. 

"You actually want to start this up again?" he asked.

"It's hard to believe these guys would actually try this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press