EDMONTON — Documents released under Alberta Freedom of Information laws confirm the United Conservative Party government was talking with the coal industry about relaxing a policy that protected the Rocky Mountains from open-pit mines long before making those plans public.

The documents also show the province was talking about opening those landscapes to the potential of more coal development for at least seven months before letting Albertans in on its plans.

The Canadian Press has seen material released to a group of southern Alberta ranchers, who have waged a four-year battle against Alberta Energy to understand why the province rescinded a decades-old policy protecting the Rockies from coal mines.

That decision sparked a rush of coal exploration interest on thousands of hectares. It was eventually rescinded after a huge public outcry from citizens who didn't want open-pit coal mines on some of the province's most beloved landscapes.

A judge last week stymied government attempts to block further document releases concerning the decision, and the ranchers are now waiting for thousands more pages.

During question period Tuesday, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley called for an apology from the UCP for forcing the ranchers to go to court to get the documents.

Premier Danielle Smith said the government will make sure everyone gets the required documents, which were generated under former premier Jason Kenney.

"We will abide by the decision of the court," Smith said. "We obviously have had a change in leadership in this file, and we will make whatever documents available that the court requires."

Energy Minister Brian Jean said the government has already released much information on the coal policy.

The documents also show the province was talking about opening those landscapes to the potential of more coal development for at least seven months before letting Albertans in on its plans.

"The (judge's) decision is under review to determine if an appeal should be filed," he said Tuesday in a statement. "We recognize that there is public interest related to coal production in Alberta."

The records already obtained refer repeatedly to meetings and communications with industry over the policy well before it was rescinded in May 2020.

A note to the assistant deputy minister of energy on Jan. 20, 2020, which is partially redacted, reads: "The coal sector has requested (redacted) removal of the coal policy for a number of years."

A note three days later from another Alberta Energy official says, "We're aware of the coal industry's concerns."

On March 5, 2020, deputy ministers from both Alberta Energy and Alberta Environmental Protection met with the Coal Association of Canada.

A March 9 planning document states: "The coal industry has communicated to Alberta that it would like the coal categories rescinded or significantly updated so that it may have access to a modern regulatory system like every other resource industry."

By that time, planning for major changes to the policy that had protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies since 1976 was well underway. A document, titled "Coal Policy — Coal Categories Review Project Charter," was signed off on by officials from Energy, Environment and the Alberta Energy Regulator on Oct. 29, 2019 — six months after the UCP first took office.

Among the charter's objectives was reducing "regulatory uncertainty leading to underinvestment by the coal industry," it says.

No municipalities, environmental groups, First Nations or other organizations have said they were contacted for input before the decision was announced on May 15, 2020 — the Friday before the long weekend.

The documents were released to the ranchers in five separate packages between 2021 and 2023. They are heavily redacted under exemptions allowed by law. Of the documents received, 605 pages are partly erased and 748 are completely blank.

The province's Information and Privacy Commissioner has said many of those exemptions were misused and ordered Alberta Energy to produce the requested records. The government asked for a judicial review of that decision, but a Court of King's Bench judge on Friday refused the request.

"Democracy dies in darkness," wrote Justice Kent Teskey.

Richard Harrison, a lawyer for the ranchers, said somewhere between 5,191 and 5,939 further documents are expected. He said the government has conceded on a number of the redactions but hasn't provided the information.

"Despite having abandoned those arguments for nearly one year, the ranchers haven’t received the records," he wrote in an email. "The (conceded) redactions haven’t been removed and are still being asserted."

Laura Laing, one of the ranchers who wants the documents, said she and her colleagues just want to know why.

"We were trying to best understand how these decisions were made in the first place," she said in an interview Monday.

The delays and redactions didn't seem right, said Laing.

"We didn't feel that this was transparent, and we didn't feel this was fair to us or Albertans."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.

Keep reading

"Democracy. Dies in Darkness."
An apt description of the UCP and their shadowy friends.

Yeah, they see that as more of a guide to action than a warning.

This shows the UCP care nothing about Alberta and Albertans. The federal Conservatives aren't any different.