When it comes to bad ideas, they don’t get much worse than sinking $1.5 billion worth of taxpayer dollars into a pipeline project that depended on the continued support of the least popular American president in modern history.
But on that score, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney appears determined to outdo himself. In addition to picking a fight with the most powerful economy in the world, his government is trying to make it as easy as possible for foreign corporations to build open-pit coal mines in the province’s scenic Rocky Mountains. Outside of openly rooting for the Vancouver Canucks, he probably couldn’t have found a better way to unite Albertans against him and his government.
The anger a growing number of Albertans are now expressing against the province’s atavistic embrace of open-pit coal mining didn’t happen overnight, mind you. That’s partially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and partially because the government quietly announced the repeal of the Lougheed-era Coal Policy on the Friday before the long weekend in May.
Even fewer people were aware that in its well-documented zeal to reduce “red tape,” (the government even has an “Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction”) the Kenney government rescinded Directive 061, which contained hundreds of pages detailing how and where companies could apply to develop a coal mine, and replaced it with a 42-page manual.
In a letter on behalf of the Livingstone Landowners Association, Gavin Fitch, the president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was unsparing in his analysis of the change. “The AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) has eliminated the extensive application requirements of Directive 061 and replaced them with nothing,” he wrote.
But while these moves may have escaped most people’s attention last year, they’re very much in their sights right now. The government is already being taken to court by both a group of ranchers working the land in the Livingstone Range southwest of Calgary and Indigenous communities like the Blackfoot Nations that depend on the headwaters of the Oldman River Basin and view them as sacred to their way of life.
“Alberta acknowledges this reality in its land use plans for the region and (commitment) to consulting Kainai and other First Nations on key decisions,” the Blood Tribe said in a recent statement. “Even so, the government of Alberta made its hasty decision to strip protection of the area without any consultation.”
It’s not just environmentalists or Indigenous communities speaking out against these proposed developments, either. Corb Lund, a fifth-generation Albertan and popular country musician who normally stays out of the political limelight, decided to get involved when it became clear the government’s coal policy could threaten the part of the province he holds most dear. “Basically, we’re giving up the Rocky Mountains — and really jeopardizing our water source for a big part of the province — for peanuts, for a handful of jobs,” he told the Globe and Mail. “The cost just doesn’t add up.”
Lund isn’t the only high-profile rural Albertan who sees it this way. Paul Brandt, a fellow country musician who actually leads a government of Alberta committee on human trafficking, shared his own concerns on Instagram in January about the possibility of new coal mines opening up along the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
Alberta is risking its multibillion-dollar tourism industry and the health and well-being of millions of people who live, farm and fish downstream in order to potentially create a few hundred jobs, columnist @maxfawcett writes. #ableg #abpoli
“Corb Lund is right,” he wrote. “This is a big deal and a bad deal. As an Albertan who enjoys fly-fishing in our clear waters and spending time in the outdoors, I hope our government listens, consults and reconsiders. We can’t put short-sighted economic benefit ahead of long-term consequences that could devastate our people and land for generations to come.”
What’s most perplexing about the government’s decision here, one that has angered a bipartisan community of Albertans who view the mountains as a kind of shared trust, is that the economic benefits aren’t even that substantial. It’s true the proposed projects would create a few hundred direct jobs, along with some spinoff employment at companies that would supply or support the mines. But those could come at the cost of other jobs in the outdoor tourism and recreation sector, to say nothing of the impacts on farmers living downstream from the mines and their potentially toxic byproducts.
And, of course, it may prove more difficult to attract environmentally minded international tourists to Alberta’s national parks if they find out that open-pit coal mines are operating in the same neighbourhood.
What's the economic upside here as far as the provincial treasury goes? A mere one per cent of mine-mouth revenue until the project earns back its capital costs, and an additional 13 per cent of net revenue thereafter. The profits, meanwhile, would flow to the Australian mining companies, who would surely keep their highest-paid head office employees working and paying taxes Down Under.
In the end then, the government is risking Alberta’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry and the health and well-being of millions of Albertans who live, farm and fish downstream in order to potentially create a few hundred jobs and a pitifully small stream of new royalty revenue. Even for a government that’s desperately searching for any kind of economic win (witness Kenney’s 2019 press conference heralding a new McDonald’s franchise in Sherwood Park) this is some conspicuously thin gruel.
Still, Kenney seems determined to keep serving it up to Albertans. In an unusual turn of events, the government actually acknowledged the concerns raised by people like Lund and Brandt by cancelling 11 recently awarded coal leases. But those leases only account for 1,800 of the 420,000 hectares held by companies in lands protected from open-pit mining under the Lougheed-era Coal Policy, and their cancellation does nothing to dissuade the four Australian mining companies that still plan to turn nearly 1,000 square kilometres into active mine sites in the region.
Adding a pinch of salt or two isn’t going to make this economic pittance any more palatable to Albertans, especially those worried about the environmental costs associated with it. If Kenney isn’t careful here, they may decide it’s time for a new cook in their political kitchen.