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Alberta Politics Daveberta Podcast

Episode 68: The 1976 Coal Policy and stopping open-pit mining in Alberta’s Rockies

Kevin Van Tighem joins the Daveberta Podcast to discuss one of the biggest issues in Alberta politics today – the expansion of open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Kevin explains how the 1976 Coal Policy protected larges swaths of the Rocky Mountains from open-pit coal mining and the impact these large scale industrial projects would have on local wildlife habitat, local economies, and the water that millions of Albertans depend on.

We discuss the influence of mining companies over the Alberta government, the reasons why Energy Minister Sonya Savage rescinded the policy last spring, and what kind of improvements could be included in a new coal policy.

Kevin Van Tighem is a conservationist, former Superintendent of Banff National Park, and author whose books include Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta. You can read his columns in AlbertaViews Magazine.

The Daveberta Podcast is hosted by Dave Cournoyer and produced by Adam Rozenhart.

The Daveberta Podcast is a member of the Alberta Podcast Network: Locally grown. Community supported. The Alberta Podcast Network includes dozens of great made-in-Alberta podcasts.

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Alberta Politics

Who opposes Kenney’s decision to allow open-pit coal mining in Alberta’s Rockies? Basically everybody.

The United Conservative Party government’s decision to unilaterally rescind a 1976 Coal Policy that protected large swaths of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and Foothills from open-pit coal mining has hit a nerve with Albertans.

Similar to the UCP government’s decision to close or privatize more than 160 provincial parks, which the government began to slowly back away from after widespread opposition in 2020, the decision to rescind the Coal Policy and enthusiastically support open-pit coal mining is an issue that is facing opposition across Alberta.

The opposition to the Coal Policy reminds me somewhat of the fight over electrical transmission lines that the old Progressive Conservative government stumbled into in the mid-2000s. In both cases, Conservative governments forgot how to listen to and speak with to their long-time rural supporters – and in the case of the PCs there were big consequences in the following election.

But in this case, the coal issue transcends the urban-rural divide that Alberta politicians sometimes like to exploit.

Albertans are proud of our Rocky Mountains. And we are acutely aware of how exploding the tops off those mountains would destroy habitat and pollute the water sources that millions of Albertans depend on.

Highwood UCP MLA RJ Sigurdson, who’s district includes part of the area directly impacted by the decision, says he is listening to his constituents concerns but he has not broken with his government on the issue. Livingstone-Macleod UCP MLA Roger Reid claimed the decision was made by the Alberta Energy Regulator, even though the policy was actually rescinded by Energy Minister Sonya Savage.

Describing the Peter Lougheed-era Coal Policy as outdated, Premier Jason Kenney dismissed the opposition by claiming critics of open-pit coal mining were mostly “city-dwellers.” But the chorus of opposition from Albertans who actually live on the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies tells the true story.

Who opposes the Kenney government’s decision to remove the 1976 Coal Policy?

The opposition to Kenney’s removal of the coal policy has been building since 2020, with ranchers, farmers and conservation, hunting, recreation and environmental groups, and the NDP opposition raising the alarm. But the opposition to Kenney’s coal push got a big boast when country music artists Corb Lund, Paul Brandt, Terri Clark, and kd lang, Heartland actor Amber Marshall, and television’s Terry Grant (aka the Mantracker) spoke out against the removal of the Coal Policy and in favour of protecting the Rockies and Foothills from open-pit coal mining.

Bearspaw, Ermineskin and Whitefish Lake First Nations – Landowners and the Ermineskin and Whitefish Lake First Nations have filed separate requests for a judicial review of the decision, which they argue was made without legally required consultations. (Alberta Native News, Jan. 18, 2021)

Municipal District of Ranchlands – Several groups are seeking intervenor status to join the ranchers seeking a judicial review: the M.D. of Ranchland, the Bearspaw, Siksika, Kainai and Whitefish First Nations, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Alberta Hiking Association, the Alberta Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association, the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Livingstone Landowners Group. (CBC, Jan. 20, 2021)

Town of Claresholm: Town Council voted to send a letter following up on a June 20, 2020 letter to the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Energy, and to cc MLA Roger Reid and Premier Jason Kenney raising concern over the rescindment of the 1976 Coal Policy. (Town of Claresholm, Jan. 25, 2021)

Foothills County – Foothills councillors are expressing their concern with a lack of policy around coal mining in southern Alberta. Council agreed to draft a letter to the provincial government regarding the controversial application for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, an $800-million coal mining operation proposed in the Crowsnest Pass by Benga Mining Ltd., a subsidiary of Australian parent company Riversdale Resources. (Okotoks Today, Jan. 25, 2021)

Town of Edson – Edson officials penned a letter to the premier on Jan. 19 that asked the province to reopen closed, already-developed metallurgical mines instead of moving forward with new ones. (Global News, Jan. 27, 2021)

Village of Longview – “We are definitely not in favour of it,” said Kathie Wight, mayor of Longview, a community of 334 that looks out on the rangelands and mountains of the province’s southwest. “More public consultation needs to be taken into consideration.” (Global News, Jan. 27, 2021)

Town of Nanton – The Town of Nanton has sent a letter, signed by the mayor, to Alberta’s premier stating its concerns about open pit coal mining in southwest Alberta. In the Jan. 20 letter, the Town first thanks Premier Jason Kenney and Sonya Savage, Alberta’s energy minister, for the government’s Jan. 18 announcement cancelling 11 recently issued coal leases and the pause in issuing coal lease sales in former “Category 2” lands, which include large swaths of the Eastern Slopes and were previously protected. (Nanton News, Jan. 27, 2021)

Town of OkotoksOkotoks Town Council passed a motion to draft a letter addressed to Premier Jason Kenney and other members of the provincial government regarding the recently rescinded 1976 Coal Policy. The letter would request an immediate rollback on the rescinding of the policy, a consultation process on the desired changes to the policy, and an impact report on how the project may affect local water. (Okotoks Online, Jan. 28, 2021)

Town of High River – “Coal exploration is causing irreparable damage to the landscapes and watersheds as well as adversely affecting the public’s access, use and enjoyment of Crown lands,” says the letter from town council in High River, about 55 kilometres south of Calgary. (CBC, Feb. 1, 2021)

Town of Canmore – Canmore Mayor John Borrowman will write a letter to Premier Jason Kenney urging him and the UCP government to reinstate the 1976 Coal Development Policy that was rescinded last year. (Rocky Mountain Today, Feb. 2, 2021)

Kainai-Blood Tribe – The Kainai-Blood Tribe will be launching a legal challenge against the Government of Alberta over its decision to unilaterally rescind the 1976 Coal Policy. (Lethbridge Herald, Feb. 2, 2021)

Town of Turner Valley – Turner Valley town council voted in favour of submitting a letter to the provincial government regarding coal exploration, joining several other Alberta towns in doing so. The letter includes several requests, including for the provincial government re-instate the 1976 Coal Policy, to institute a consultation process with relevant stakeholders, and for an analysis of environmental, hydrological, economic, and recreational impacts of the proposed changes. (Okotoks Online, Feb. 3, 2021)

Siksika First Nation– Siksika First Nation is launching a legal challenge against the province’s decision to rescind its coal policy, effectively allowing open-pit coal mining in the Rockies. (Calgary Herald, Feb. 4, 2021)

City of Airdrie – City council voted unanimously Feb. 1 to offer support to municipalities in southern Alberta that are advocating against the development of open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. At the Feb. 1 meeting, Airdrie resident Jessica Jacobs submitted a letter to council as public correspondence, urging the City to take a stance against the Grassy Mountain Coal Project – an $800-million coal mining operation that has been proposed in the Crowsnest Pass. (AirdrieToday.com, Feb. 5, 2021)

City of Lethbridge – Lethbridge could be joining a chorus of communities across southern Alberta to voice concerns about the UCP government’s decision to rescind a 45 year old policy on coal mining. Councillors will discuss an official business resolution next Tuesday (Feb. 9) which, if adopted would have the mayor write to Premier Jason Kenney and the Ministers of Environment and Energy requesting the policy be reinstated. (MyLethbridgeNow.com, Feb. 5, 2021)

It has been reported that the Town of Black Diamond and Clearwater County are also expected to discuss the issue in the coming weeks. Calgary City Council will discuss the issue at a Feb. 8 meeting.


Listen and subscribe to the Daveberta Podcast to hear this weekend’s podcast discussion about the Coal Policy with writer and conservationist Kevin Van Tighem.

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Alberta Politics

The Truth, the Coal Truth and nothing but the Truth

The Government of Alberta Trade Branch once operated a COAL TRUTH OFFICE in Winnipeg in an apparent effort to market the sale and defend the reputation of Alberta mined coal for domestic use.

A full-page newspaper ad from the Alberta COAL TRUTH OFFICE (published in the Winnipeg Tribune on Nov. 13, 1923)
A full-page newspaper ad from the Alberta COAL TRUTH OFFICE (published in the Winnipeg Tribune on Nov. 13, 1923)

Today it is easy to ask why the office was located in Winnipeg of all places, but when the office opened in 1920, the Chicago of the North was the third largest city in Canada, a centre of trade and commerce, and a major stop in the Canadian railway.

We now know that burning dirty coal to generate electricity is a big driver of climate change and that open-pit coal mining has horrible impacts on the environment and drinking water. But one hundred years ago, the Alberta government was aggressively marketing the sale of coal for domestic and industrial use in Manitoba and Saskatchewan while facing stiff competition from already established coal sellers.

Even though this story took place a century ago, there are some similarities to our current day that are unmistakable, namely that the current United Conservative Party government is enthusiastically jumping back into the open-pit coal mining business and indulging in its own oil propaganda office and inquisition.

Easily accessible public records about the provincial government’s Coal Truth Office are sparse, but I have cobbled together some of what I was able to uncovered about Alberta’s original Energy War Room.

According to media reports from the time, the Winnipeg-based office was established in 1920 and maintained “a staff of Fuel Engineers for the purpose of assisting you in any problems which you may have particular to your equipment or fuels.”

The office also published a book, COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE, which was sold for 50 cents and included lengthy instructions about how to use Alberta coal and why Alberta coal was a superior coal.

“Statistics quote the Province of Alberta as having 70 per cent of Canada’s visible coal resources. While this represents an enormous number pf tones of coal, it must be remembered that civilization is using fuel at an alarming rate,” wrote Provincial Secretary Herbert Greenfield in the 1923 edition the propaganda booklet. “Therefor the need for economy.”

The Alberta government even attempted to brand Alberta coal as more ethical and efficient than coal from other sources. 

An image in COAL TRUTH: ALBERTA STORED SUNSHINE
An image in COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE

“There is no country in the world that has such an abundance of similar coals. There are no raw coals in the world which have such desirable characteristics for domestic purposes as Alberta Domestic Coal – NOT excepting hard coal,” wrote George Pratt, the chief engineer stationed in the Coal Truth Office.

“Coal is the greatest necessity of Canada, yet the coal consumer takes the least interest in it, his policy being to leave it to whoever cares to take a hand,” Pratt wrote. “The individual coal buyer must be made to realize that he must get out and do something to help himself if he wishes to safeguard his interests.”

The Coal Truth Office was also active in defending the reputation of Alberta coal companies when, in the early 1920s, the federal government launched a public inquiry into an alleged price-fixing combine by Alberta-based coal companies.

The Alberta government’s legal representative in Winnipeg, J. B. Hugg, even urged the Commissioner to move the public inquiry’s activities into a private setting so that the publicity would not damage Alberta’s interests.

An image in COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE
An image in COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE

Hugg argued that advertisements published since the commission commenced investigations were misleading, deceiving and defrauding the public.

“I am instructed to say that the government of Alberta is deeply concerned in the Alberta coal industry,” Hugg was reported by the Winnipeg Tribune to have told the inquiry.

“By a series of advertisements, the coal buying public are being mislead, deceived and defrauded,” Hugg argued. “Alberta domestic coals of the highest value with long established records, are being slandered and grossly and deliberately misrepresented, and at the same time foreign coals wholly unsuited for domestic use are being passed off on the public and are being falsely represented as being most satisfactory and most efficient.”

“The government of Alberta urgently requests that you immediately investigate the activities of those persons who are misleading the public with regard to Alberta coals and endeavouring to reap a quick and unjustifiable profit out of the prejudices which they are arousing by making statements  to the public regarding the very matters which are subject to this investigation,” Hugg continued.

It does not appear that the Public Inquiry’s Commissioner accepted the Alberta representative’s argument that a veil of secrecy should be drawn over the inquiry.

The rapid expansion of Alberta’s coal industry in the 1910s and 1920s did not come without strife.

Striking coal miners in Drumheller
Striking coal miners in Drumheller (source: Glenbow Museum)

In 1919, more than 6,500 Drumheller coal miners went on strike under the banner of the One Big Union to fight for better working and living conditions, and higher wages. The striking miners were brutally repressed by “special constables” hired by the largest mining companies in the Red Deer River Valley. The RCMP and Alberta Provincial Police turned a blind eye to the violence by the para-military mining company police.

Coal mining communities in the Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, like Blairmore and Nordegg, would become hotbeds for radical politics over the next two decades. Radical Labour and Communist candidates were routinely elected to municipal councils and the provincial legislature during this time.

A poem on the back cover of COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINE
A poem on the back cover of COAL TRUTH: STORED ALBERTA SUNSHINESUNSHINE

Somewhat mirroring the current political debate over oil pipelines, transportation of coal became an issue of concern.

With railway costs becoming prohibitive, Alberta’s Provincial Secretary and Grouard MLA Jean Cote stood in the Legislative Assembly in 1921 to call for the creation of a dedicated transportation corridor on the Saskatchewan River to transport coal from Alberta to Winnipeg and beyond.

It is not entirely clear when the Alberta Coal Truth Office was shuttered, but the final mention of it I have been able to find was a report in the Winnipeg Tribune that the building at 277 Smith Street that housed the Coal Truth Office had burned down in Dec. 1924. According to the news report, “included in the loss is a new issue of the “Coal Truths” booklet with the original drawings and other valuable material.”

It is unclear whether the Coal Truth Office ever reopened after the fire.