The controversial Nordegg-area coal leases remain valid — even though Alberta has decided this week to reinstate a 1976 policy that protects the region from strip mining.
The latest government policy reversal announced this week by Energy Minister Sonya Savage, while welcomed as a first step towards protecting Category 2 lands on the Eastern Slopes from strip mining, is not being whole-heartedly celebrated by eco-tourism operators in the hamlet an hour west of Rocky Mountain House.
It’s hard to be thrilled when the multitude of coal leases that were granted around Crescent Falls, Fish Lake and Goldeye Lake — without public consultation — were not cancelled but still remain in place, said Nordegg resident and tourism operator Marla Zapach.
That was confirmed this week by Kavi Bal, director of strategic planning for the premier’s office.
In an email to the Advocate Bal stated: “Existing leases are still valid. New coal exploration and further leases on Category 2 lands have been paused until a new modern coal policy can be developed based on consultation.”
Bal noted that exploration was permitted under the 1976 coal policy — including in Category 2 lands — if approved under strict environmental criteria by the Alberta Energy Regulator.
But while the Alberta government is saying the Nordegg-area leases are just exploratory and might not lead to a mine, Zapach said, “they will still lead to more roads being built and more holes being dug, when this is a high-value tourism area.”
Nordegg resident Scott Sheldrake believes the coal leases should have been cancelled, given growing public concerns about coal development on the Eastern Slopes.
It seems the UCP is “appeasing the public” by bringing back the 1976 eastern slopes policy against strip mining in the region while honouring existing leases, Sheldrake added.
Bal said the coal leases will not be cancelled as they do not give companies an automatic right to develop without going through an environmental assessment process. He added there are leases in Category 2 lands that have been in place since since before 1976 that have not yet been developed.
Sheldrake and Zapach say Savage’s announcement is a good start for the government to do the right thing, but crucial details are still lacking — such as what kind of public consultation will be in place.
Zapach hopes all Albertans will have a voice as “the mountains belong to everybody,” and good water quality in rivers is also needed by downstream communities — including those in Saskatchewan.
Bal said the government is committed to a widespread consultation process on a modern coal policy.
The Alberta Wilderness Association is also calling for an independent panel of environmental experts to review the region and make recommendations to government on what the new eastern slopes policy should be.
“We feel for the people in the Nordegg area and continue to be concerned about this,” said Ian Urquhart, conservation director with the Alberta Wilderness Association.
Nordegg resident Nick Frank, noted coal mines are only good for 30 to 50 years, so he wants the provincial government to reveal its plans for the Big Horn region over the longer term. “I’d like to see their vision on growth and sustainability.”
A group of Nordegg residents plan to address Clearwater County council on March 9 to ask the municipality to “advocate more strongly” to the province for its own eco-tourism plans for the area.
The residents also want the county to officially sign a North Saskatchewan regional structure plan that outlines the unique features and natural assets of the area. It was drafted in 2014 but never approved.