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EDITORIAL: UCP reinstating coal policy is only the first step

On Tuesday (Feb. 8), Minister of Energy Sonya Savage announced the UCP government would reverse its decision to scrap the 1976 comprehensive coal policy.

On Monday (Feb. 8), Minister of Energy Sonya Savage announced the UCP government would reverse its decision to scrap the 1976 comprehensive coal policy.

This is a huge victory for Albertans who have spoken up and told their MLAs and government officials that the way this change occurred last year and the nature of it was unacceptable.

Public outrage has been building around the lack of consultation, as well as the potential environmental effects of this change, which opened up areas of the eastern slopes to open-pit coal mining. 

But this is only the first step; it is not a full victory for those who have been campaigning against this change.

The announcement this week may have reinstated the policy, but it also allows coal companies to continue exploration activities on those lands that had previously had restrictions on this type of mining.

Minister Savage acknowledged the government got it wrong and promised a widespread consultation process on a new coal policy for Albertans. The 1976 policy identified four categories of land and set out where and how coal leasing, exploration and development could occur. 

Albertans have a good idea of what coal companies want to see changed, demonstrated by the changes announced last year that opened up category 2 lands to open-pit mining. 

Understandably, there are those that have lost trust in the government as a result of the lack of consultation and the nature of these changes. Not to mention the fact that coal companies have been aware of these changes long before Albertans and the fact that the royalty rate for this industrial activity was set at one per cent and leases were provided for a song. 

But through the backlash, it is clear that there are also bigger issues at play, including environmental regulations, reporting and approval processes for the energy and resource extraction industries. 

In their defence of this decision, government officials, including Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin, pointed to rigorous environmental approval processes in this province. 

The evidence is to the contrary. What Alberta needs is a more robust environmental review for all industrial projects, not the rubber stamping that occurs to a chorus that exclaims that energy industry jobs and the economy is more important that protecting environmentally sensitive areas. The Alberta Energy Regulator is industry-run, for example, which does not bode well for those who oppose a project it is considering. 

This government's unabashed drive to reduce "red tape" may make it sound like they are making life easier for Albertans and small business owners, but when it comes to environmental regulations, this is a harmful and short-sighted approach.

This government also likes to point to jobs and increased gross domestic product as reasons to support resource extraction projects. 

However, undisturbed natural areas have their own economic benefit. Tourism jobs, for example, rely upon these natural amenities to attract visitors looking for outdoor and nature-based experiences. 

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry and sustainable growth of it has been championed by multiple governments, not just Premier Jason Kenney. 

The Rocky Mountains and the eastern slopes are also critical for the delivery of clean water for millions of Canadians. That clean water has value in the daily lives of urban and rural dwellers, as well as value to farmers and the agriculture industry for irrigation purposes. 

The pressure should continue on the UCP government to reconsider its overall approach to energy development in this province. Instead of a bombastic, no-holds barred doubling down on the most carbon intensive forms of energy, this government should be working towards listening to its own citizens, Canadians, investors and oil company executives and focus on the energy transition that is needed to address climate change.

Success would be if we recognize that there is a finite limit to non-renewable resources, and while we continue to responsibly develop, extract and use those, we should also be focused on reducing our reliance on them.