opinion column

Opinion: Pay attention to Kenney’s coal consultations

When does no mean no? For most Albertans, it appears to be when a rookie government decides to open our eastern slopes for coal mining.

The Kenney government’s secretive agreement with Australian coal companies to revoke Alberta’s coal policy took Albertans by surprise. Then it was the government’s turn to be taken aback when Albertans of all stripes joined forces against coal exploration and new coal mines.

An apparently contrite Minister of Energy finally promised public consultation over the issue, but she didn’t cancel massive new coal leases and destructive exploration programs. Although she said mountain-top strip mining would never be allowed in Alberta, government officials later clarified that only meant entire mountain tops wouldn’t be removed — slim comfort to Albertans concerned about land devastation and water pollution.

Secrecy continues to shroud that promise of “public consultation.” Will it be open and fair, or a contrived public relations exercise? How committed is the UCP government to seriously consider a “no mining” option? Distrust is rampant.

The Kenney government’s unfortunate history of failing to respect Albertans’ love of the eastern slopes dates back to an earlier decision, also done without consultation, to close parks and recreation areas. These are not trivial debates. The UCP seems to be promoting a fundamental shift away from protecting the scenery and ecological well-being of the eastern slopes, downstream water drinkers and a long-standing social contract by previous governments to care for our crowning jewels.

Consultation needs to take into account the cumulative effect of all the ways in which other interest groups already exploit the eastern slopes. Our mountains and foothills are reaching, and have passed several ecological thresholds. It’s time to step back, and restore some of the disturbance footprint, not add the lasting damage of coal strip mining to the mix.

Albertans treasure the eastern slopes. They are the source of almost all the water that our economy depends on. Those mountains and foothills offer natural diversity, beauty and recreational opportunity where many Alberta families seek refuge from cities, work and other stresses. Biologically unique, rare, magnificent and threatened species still survive there, although some, like native trout, hang on by a fin. The eastern slopes are an Alberta treasure.

All of that will change with coal mining. The evidence is unequivocal — one need only look over the border into the Elk Valley of BC, or closer to home, into Alberta’s Coal Branch, to see the grimness of a future where those values are displaced by coal mining.

Coal lobbyists and their government enablers portray mining as a highly regulated industry. But the legacy of existing mines puts the lie to those earnest assurances about strict regulations, proven mitigation technologies and successful reclamation. Hype about jobs, royalties and taxes has little foundation; coal mining communities already have some of the most precarious boom-and-bust economies in the province.

Once our mountains and foothills are carved apart, the water fouled and depleted, gates installed to prevent Albertans from accessing our public lands, the trout gone and the campgrounds and communities coated with coal dust, it will be too late. There will be no second chance to protect our eastern slopes.

That’s why it’s now critical for Albertans to pay attention when Kenney’s government finally launches its coal consultation. We need to watch for trick questions designed to open a wedge for coal strip mining — questions like where mining could occur, how much disturbance is OK, or whether we support best-available mitigation technologies promised to solve the pollution problems. If we offer a qualified “yes,” coal boosters in government will hear the “yes” and take it from there.

If we cherish the eastern slopes, Albertans need to take this seriously. The best answer to any question about stripping our eastern slopes for coal is a simple, blunt, unqualified “no.” Because no means no.

Lorne Fitch is a biologist, a retired provincial fish and wildlife biologist and a former adjunct professor with the University of Calgary. Kevin Van Tighem is an Alberta landscape ecologist and author of several books on nature and conservation.