In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy's Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File

Miner ponders impact of restoration of coal protection policy in Alberta

A coal-mining company with exploration leases in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains is trying to figure out how the government’s decision to restore protection of the land will affect its plans.

“I’m not sure specifically or exactly what it means for our business,” said Brad Johnston, chief development officer for Cabin Ridge, a Calgary-based, privately held company that holds exploration permits granted last fall on coal leases north of Coleman, Alta.

“What has the government actually told us? he asked.

“When we get more clarity on this, we’ll be able to understand what it is the regulator is saying that we can and can’t do. Right now, I don’t know the answer to that question.”

On Monday, Energy Minister Sonya Savage bowed to intense public pressure and reinstated a policy that has protected the mountains and foothills from surface coal-mining since 1976.

Savage said exploration permit holders will be able to go ahead with activity such as drill sites and roads. But she also said the province’s energy regulator has been told that “mountaintop removal” is not allowed.

Cabin Ridge is a member of the Coal Association of Canada, which Johnston said has asked to meet with the government.

“We’ve asked for a meeting with the (Alberta Energy Regulator) to seek clarity on what some of these terms mean,” said Johnston. “We would like to have a meeting with the policy-makers for the same reason.”

He said he’s not sure his company will go ahead withexploration work for which it already has permits.

“That’s part of our assessment. I would like to think we’re going to proceed. We have a valid permit and we don’t see that we’re doing something that’s not transparent, that’s not heavily regulated.”

Johnston said Cabin Ridge was not given a heads-up by the government before the announcement. But he wasn’t entirely surprised.

“It’s an about-face. But in many regards, with the feedback that the government was getting from a variety of stakeholders, perhaps a reset was appropriate.”

The pushback was fierce and came from small-town mayors, the city of Lethbridge, environmentalists, ranchers and country singers. More than 100,000 signatures were collected on petitions.

Johnston still believes Albertans can be persuaded that there’s a place for surface coal-mining on one of the province’s most-loved landscapes.

“We have a viewpoint that what we do is environmentally responsible,” he said. “What we do can be and is sustainable.”

He knows Albertans have questions. “Some of these questions are very legitimate, but that’s something that’s the outcome of the work we’re going to do. The outcome of that work will answer those kinds of questions.”

He said the company won’t have a preliminary economic assessment until June. It might be two years before Cabin Ridge knows how it wants to proceed.

Until then, Johnston said, the company is happy to participate in whatever public consultation the government devises.

“It’s fair for people to understand what this means. We want to work with these groups to provide that clarity, to answer questions that are put to us, in a respectful way. These are good things.”

However, clarity begins at home, Johnston suggested. A little explanation of what the government has in mind would be useful, he said.

“There’s a reassessment that we have to undertake to try and figure out what (the announcement) means for us. It’s early days.”

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