Opponents of new coal policy say Alberta energy minister’s gesture means little

CALGARY — As public outcry grows over the dramatic expansion of coal leases along the previously protected foothills, Energy Minister Sonya Savage tried to ease tensions this week.

In a written statement sent just before 5 p.m. Monday, the minister announced 11 coal leases auctioned in December would be cancelled and future auctions paused, acknowledging strong public feedback.

But critics say the announcement affects a tiny fraction of the more than 400,000 hectares opened to strip mining last May.

The change in policy removes nearly 45 years of protection under the Alberta Coal Policy of 1976.

“It means nothing,” says High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass, speaking about the cancellation of 11 leases sold in December.

“People that aren’t watching that are mad about this. That’s what this is, a play to get everything to calm down.

Among the leases which are still open to exploration and development are several surrounding Crescent Falls near the David Thompson highway.

The falls were featured in Travel Alberta’s “Don’t Forget to Breathe” campaign.

“All these recreation areas both in central and southern Alberta, those are still on the books, those are still open for exploration, test pits and eventual mine developments,” said Katie Morrison with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Country artist Corb Lund’s family has lived and ranched in Alberta since 1898. Lund says he’s trying to be charitable but he’s suspicious of the sudden but small change.

“I’ll give them credit, if this is the first tiny step in a much bigger effort, great, thank you very much,” he said.

“But if this is meant to satisfy us, it’s not working.”

Among the leases offered for auction in December was one on the southern end of Mist Ridge in Kananaskis.

There were no bids.

The province is in court this week trying to strike down an application by groups of ranchers and four First Nations to have the old coal policy re-instated.

If the province’s case fails, they could be forced to re-instate the 1976 policy and go through a public consultation process before any changes are made to protections along the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

Opponents say strip mining will not only permanently remove the picturesque mountains, but threaten the water supply through selenium contamination.

Selenium is a trace mineral that is safe in small doses, but can quickly pose a health hazard to humans in higher quantities. It also leads to deformities and death in fish, including the endangered westslope cutthroat trout.

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