Alberta government backtracks, promising public consultations on coal mining policy

The province of Alberta cancelled its own long-standing regulations regarding coal mining exploration, leases and development in May 2020,  but the government was forced to reverse course – as stated in a press release in February 8, Alberta’s 1976 coal policy reinstated .  The policy was not only reinstated, but the government promises “we will implement further protections and consult with Albertans on a new, modern coal policy.” The Narwhal provides an overview of events and the political miscalculations in  “How a public uprising forced a province built on fossil fuels to reverse course on coal mining”   – quoting a political science professor at the University of Alberta who calls the public pressure “unprecedented” –  “The government simply did not imagine that this kind of mobilization could happen” .  The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society website has monitored the issue in a series of news releases and hosts an online campaign against coal development, still expressing concern about the government’s intentions.  The article in The Narwhal implies that the current Kenny government is out of touch with the diversity of opinion in Alberta – a diversity reflected in a poll released by Pembina Institute in February, showing  Albertan attitudes to the oil and gas industry and to the goal of net-zero emissions.

In the interim before the consultation is launched, the National Observer published “There is no such thing as a contamination-free coal mine, top scientist warns Albertans” (Feb. 16)  –  summarizing a 2019 evaluation of the Benga Mining proposal for an open-pit coal mine at Grassy Mountain near the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies, which concluded: “The Grassy Mountain Coal Project will create a ticking environmental time-bomb resulting from selenium pollution of high quality, high value aquatic habitats and culminate in poisoning of provincially and federally protected fish.”

Just Transition for the coal industry is expensive – but cheaper than failure to address the needs

July 2017 saw the release of  Lessons from Previous Coal Transitions:  High-level Summary for Decision-makers , a synthesis report of case studies of past coal mining transitions in Spain, U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, U.S., and the Czech Republic – some as far back as the 1970’s.  Some key take-aways from the report:  “Because of the large scale and complexity of the challenges to be addressed, the earlier that actors (i.e. workers, companies and regions) anticipated, accepted and began to implement steps to prepare and cushion the shock of the transition, the better the results”; “the aggregate social costs to the state of a failure to invest in the transition of workers and regions are often much higher that the costs of not investing from an overall societal perspective.” While the level of cost details varies in the case studies, it is clear that costs are significant.  For example, the case study of Limburg, Netherlands states that the national government spent approximately 11.6 billion Euros (in today’s prices) on national subsidies to support coal prices and regional reconversion, in addition to  several 100 million per year in EU funds. “One estimate also suggested that in the Dutch case, all told, regional reinvestment in new economic activities also cost about 300 to 400 000€/per long-term job created.”  Limburg is also cited as “remarkable for the relatively consensual nature of the transition between unions, company and government.”  (see page 10).

The Synthesis report and individual case study reports of the six countries are available here . These are the work of the Research and Dialogue on Coal Transitions project, a large-scale research project led by Climate Strategies and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) , which also sponsors the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  Future reports scheduled for 2018: a Global report, and a Round Table on the Future of Coal.