The Jason Kenney government in Alberta has laid down the red carpet for heavyweight Australian mining interests that want to bring mountaintop removal coal mining to a vast swath of the southern Rockies. And with at-risk ecosystems and their own livelihoods at stake, local farmers and ranchers are fighting back.
Nearly 800 square kilometres of territory that combines rich ranchlands with prime grizzly habitat is under threat as Alberta’s government pays court to two billionaire speculators and four coal mining companies from Australia, all itching to supply metallurgical coal to Asian and Brazilian markets, reports The Tyee.
With steelmaking coal nearing exhaustion back home, the Down Under interests are keen to set up shop in Alberta, and the Kenney government—faced with job losses and declining revenues as fossil fortunes tank—is equally keen to welcome them.
One thread in that welcome mat, writes the Tyee, is the province’s recent move to sweep away—without any public consultation—a regulation on the books since 1976 that “banned or restricted open-pit mining in much of the Rockies in an effort to protect watersheds and wildlife.”
The Tyee adds that while ordinary Albertans were not consulted, the Kenney government did meet with the Coal Association of Canada’s Robin Campbell, a former Progressive Conservative MLA and provincial environment minister who “actively lobbied for the Coal Policy’s demise on behalf of his Australian clients.”
Further sweetening the pot, the province “has sent letters of support to Australian mining speculators offering them less red tape and lower corporate taxes,” along with an expedited permitting process. The latter will be enabled by the fact that it “has staffed the Alberta Energy Regulator, which will review each coal mining project, with people whose pasts are aligned with resource extracting corporations.”
One such person is “self-described ‘political activist’ John Weissenberger, who worked on Jason Kenney’s election campaign,” adds The Tyee.
Digging into the identities of these petitioners, the B.C.-based publication writes that Riversdale Resources, owned by Australian billionaire and “arch-conservative” Gina Rinehart and holder of 140 square kilometres of coal leases in the Rocky Mountain’s Crowsnest Pass, is proposing to “level” 28 square kilometres of mountain to the north of the small town of Blairmore “and then expand into its leased properties both north and south along the eastern slopes.”
The other Australian billionaire anxious to grab a bit of the action is Tim Roberts, who owns 19% of Atrum Coal, a mining firm that “wants to take another 230-square-kilometre chunk out of the southern Rockies with its Elan Project, a huge complex of four open-pit mines,” all of which sit on land once protected by the recently-turfed 1976 provincial regulation.
Noting that this project “would require a 36-kilometre-long covered conveyor belt to transport the coal to rail lines in the Crowsnest Pass,” The Tyee adds that the province recently issued permits to the company allowing it “to punch in more than 30 kilometres of roads and more than 400 drill sites for exploratory work on prime grizzly bear habitat.”
Roberts is also an interested party in the quest by another Australian mining company, Cabin Ridge, to begin exploratory work throughout its 190-square-kilometre lease on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Roberts is chair of the hedge fund Warburton Group, which owns Cabin Ridge.
Finally, there is Melbourne-based Montem Resources, which has multiple leases covering 220 square kilometres, including four open-pit mines that were shuttered decades ago and that Montem is planning to reopen. The Tyee says three of the company’s proposed mountaintop removal mines would literally “carve out mountains in the eastern slopes that protect the watershed of the Oldman River that empties into the South Saskatchewan River.”
Opponents say those mines “will not only pollute watersheds that provide drinking and irrigation water for 1.8 million of Canada’s prairie dwellers but [also] destroy existing sustainable economies, from tourism to ranching.” Already, five existing open-pit mines operated by Vancouver-based Teck Resources on the B.C. side of the Rockies in Elk Valley “have contaminated local and U.S. waterways with toxic selenium.”
In response to these proposed incursions, a group of landowners and ranchers who have grazed cattle on the eastern slopes of the Rockies for generations are staging an “alarmed and outraged” revolt against the Kenney government’s “cozy relationship with Aussie coal miners and speculators,” The Tyee says. Now in the crosshairs of mining development, they are hoping the courts will overturn the government’s decision to dispense with the Coal Policy, declaring it illegal without proper public consultation. A judicial review of the case is scheduled for January.
“The call to action for me is about what’s in the best interests of Canadians and Albertans,” said Jolayne Gardner, whose ranch would be directly affected by the mining. “And it’s certainly not about a short-term economic gain for foreign-owned companies. This province has done enough of that in recent years,” she told The Tyee.
“Bristling” at such claims, Robin Campbell accused the ranchers of letting their emotions get in the way of “the facts”: namely, the need “to look at all economic opportunities” in the face of high unemployment.
But “looking at facts and alternative economies is exactly what has caused so much opposition to the mines,” responded one third-generation rancher who heard Campbell speak at a public debate. He added that the mines “would do far more harm than good to the people, economy, and environment of this area.”
The rancher added that, “if Mr. Campbell was facing a bulldozer about to go through his front yard and take out his water supply and livelihood with it, he would show some emotion too.”
Gina Rinehart and her coal mining friends may be feeling some strong emotions themselves, writes The Tyee, because they really need Alberta’s coal. After the 2003–2013 boom that made Australia one of the world’s top exporters of metallurgical coal, the industry is slowly going bust, faced with the double whammy of exhausted seams and increased public opposition.
In one notable case last year, the New South Wales Land and Environment Court slammed a proposal for an open-pit metallurgical coal mine, saying the project would impoverish “people’s way of life; community; access to and use of infrastructure, services and facilities; culture; health and well-being; surroundings; and fears and aspirations.”
As to the risk posed to ordinary Albertans by the willingness of their government to lower every possible bar in favour of Australian billionaires, University of Alberta inland waters expert David Schindler affirmed the profound threat the mines will pose to local watersheds, citing the notorious and permanent damage done by the industry in Appalachia.
Schindler also red-flagged the Albertan proposal as a profound economic hazard set to duplicate the expensive demise of the tar sands/oil sands. “The coal will not be used for long, so again Alberta will be left with stranded assets,” he said—along with, adds The Tyee, “a legacy of degraded landscapes.”