Updates – What Is Happening Now?
September 2023: Benga Mining Limited has recently changed its name to Northback Holdings Corporation. Readers will recall Benga Mining was the company that had applications for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project denied by a joint federal/provincial review and AER in 2021. Benga then filed with the Alberta Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, to have the decision reversed. Those applications were rejected in 2022. That should have been the end of discussions of coal mining on Grassy. However, with the recent name change, Northback Holdings, (Benga) made application to the AER on September 6/23 for drilling and water diversion permits on Grassy yet again.
As of January 2023, Albertans have no assurances that the current government has the will to protect our water. Although the ministerial order that put a “pause ” on open pit mining is still in place, the current Energy Minister, Peter Guthrie, will not state how long it may remain in place. During her campaign, Premier Danielle Smith made it clear that further considerations of this type of mining (and the ensuing damage to our water sources and mountains) are possible.
On Thursday September 29, it was announced that the Supreme Court of Canada turned down requests from Benga Mining, Stoney Nakoda and Piikani First Nations, to hear an appeal of the Alberta Energy Regulator’s decision to not allow open pit mining at Grassy Mountain. Many Albertans are hopeful that this ends the issue of mining Grassy Mountain.
July/August, 2022. As clearly stated by CPAWS: “The coal industry and the Governments of Alberta and BC have stated that the regulations are too hard for industry to meet. As a result, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has increased the proposed allowable concentration of toxic substances in the effluent released into our watersheds— endangering fish, other wildlife and habitat across borders. By doing so, ECCC is putting the profits of industry ahead of concerns for the environment.” Canadians should not allow this to go ahead unchallenged.
March 4, 2022: The Alberta Government released the long awaited reports of the Coal Committee and it would appear that the government listened to the recommendations. Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced: “Effective immediately, our government is extending the restrictions on coal exploration and development in the Eastern Slopes. I am issuing a new ministerial order that suspends all… all…coal related exploration and development activity in the Eastern Slopes. No new activity will be allowed.……The ministerial order will remain in place until direction on coal activity can be embedded into updated land use plans, tailored to support the unique needs of this area.” Savage continued to say that the 1976 Coal Policy will remain in place. Existing operational mines will continue, and coal projects considered to be in advanced stages of the application/regulatory process will be allowed to proceed through the process. The 4 advanced stage projects are identified as: Grassy Mountain; Tent Mountain; Vista Mine expansion; and Mine 14 (Summit Coal). These projects may or may not be successful in proceeding through the regulatory process or joint review panel process with the Federal government. Nothing in the announcement addressed plans for reclamation of lands already damaged through exploration. While this announcement can be viewed as a step in the right direction, Albertans need to remain vigilant, and become actively engaged in the land use planning and development frameworks, as it is clear that open pit coal mining may indeed be allowed under regional plans. The devastating effects of open pit coal mining will remain a threat until the Eastern Slopes are protected within these Land Use plans developed for each region.
January 28, 2022: The Alberta Court of Appeal, announced rejection of the applications to appeal the regulatory decision not to approve permits for the Grassy Mountain project to proceed. The applications had been submitted by Benga Mining, and two area First Nations (Stoney Nakoda and Piikani). Therefore, at this point, the Grassy Mountain open pit mine project cannot move forward.
September 19, 2021 was the deadline for public submissions to the Coal Policy Committee. The final report from this committee was due to be submitted to the Minister of Energy by November 15, but has been extended until December 31/21. Sonya Savage stated that the details of the reports would be reviewed in detail before being released to the public. Therefore, it is unknown when the reports will be release
On August 6th, 2021, Jonathan Wilkinson, Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, issued the decision statement that the Grassy Mountain Coal Project cannot proceed as it is likely to cause “significant adverse environmental effects” that cannot be justified. It is disheartening to hear that Benga Mining has reportedly said it has plans to review this federal decision with their legal counsel with an eye to applying for a judicial review. The Grassy Mountain Project has now been thoroughly reviewed and denied by both the provincial and federal regulatory bodies, yet Benga Mining is still looking for legal arguments to reverse those decisions.
On July 16, 2021 Benga Mining filed a request to the Alberta Court of Appeal in regard to the AER decision to deny the Grassy Mountain Project. The hearing for this application to appeal is expected to be heard on September 9. It may be interesting to note that the next day, Robin Campbell (President of the Coal Association of Canada) a prominent lobbyist for coal mining, wrote a misleading opinion piece in the Calgary Herald, calling the decision of the AER “incomprehensible”. He states that the AER: “ failed to apply appropriately rigorous science-based expertise to specific issues and evidence”. Mr. Campbell has a long background in politics in Alberta, thus it is particularly notable for him to finish his written opinion with the statement: “Every proposal should be reviewed fairly and fully, and a decision made that reflects the true public — not political — interest.” This is one accurate statement in this opinion piece and one that we can all agree with. Please read the response to this opinion piece, by Ian Urquhart.
On June 28, 2021 Jonathan Wilkinson announced that the Tent Mountain Coal Mine Project is designated for a Federal Impact Assessment.
June 17, 2021. The Joint Review Panel for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, released its report. In its capacity as AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) it has denied Benga Mining Ltd’s applications for this project. It concluded that “the adverse environmental effects on surface water quality and westslope cutthroat trout and its habitat outweigh the positive economic impacts of the project and the project is not in the public interest.” The Panel submitted their report with rationale, conclusions and recommendations to Federal Minister of Environment Jonathan Wilkinson. The denial of the Grassy Mountain mine applications is an important and positive move forward. However 7 other open pit mining project proposals remain. These Australian companies have indicated they will continue to push forward with their proposals for open pit mines in our Eastern Slopes.
June 2021.The Livingstone Landowners Group released the report of a scientific study they had commissioned, on June 15, 2021. It “concluded that proposed coking coal-mining projects in the eastern slopes will have a significant and irreversible regional-scale environmental impact”. This report will be submitted to the Coal Policy Committee. On June 16, in response to a petition ( signed by 18,000 folks) and put forward by MP Heather McPherson, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced that the Federal Government will conduct an environmental review of any new coal project that could potentially release selenium into water bodies. Although this is a major step forward, he did not commit to a regional assessment for cumulative effects.
May, 2021. The High River Town Council has sent a letter to all municipalities asking communities to support their proposal for a Coal Restriction Policy. The proposal contained 3 main components:
- “No further coal exploration or development will be permitted on the Eastern Slopes of Alberta. There will no longer be categories within this area and, instead, there would only be one defined today as the Eastern Slopes;
- Existing coal mining operations in the Hinton/Grande Cache areas will be permitted to retire gracefully, and;
- Reclamation of lands disturbed by coal exploration activities with coal exploration permits issued prior to February 8, 2021 must be reclaimed no later than December 31, 2025.”
The High River Town Council will compile the feedback received and submit it to the Coal Policy Committee by July 2021. You can assist this initiative by contacting your council and asking them to support this proposal
April 23, 2021. The Public Engagement Survey that was available to complete online from March 29 to April 19, resulted in over 25,000 completed surveys by Albertans in three weeks. On April 23, Minister of Energy Sonya Savage and Chair of the Committee on coal policy consultation, Ron Wallace, (link) announced that the Committee had reviewed preliminary data from the survey and recommended to the Minister that exploration be halted in Category 2 lands while the public consultation takes place. The Minister acted on that recommendation and halted exploration activity effective immediately in Category 2 lands. Both the Chair of the committee and the Minister of Energy clarified that the committee is indeed independent and they are encouraged to listen to Albertan’s views regarding all effects of coal development. While this can be seen as a very positive step forward, it is interesting to note that the Terms of Reference still do not reflect this. In addition, many Albertans believe strongly that ALL exploration should be halted on the Eastern Slopes, not just in Category 2 lands. The Minister re-stated that the goal is the development of a Coal Policy, not a land use plan for the Eastern Slopes.
April 15, 2021.The Alberta Government released the Terms of Reference (dated March 29, but released on April 15) for the committee of 5 members who are expected to lead the public consultation on development of the “modern coal policy”. According to Sonya Savage (Energy Minister): “ by establishing an independent committee, everyone across the province will have their voices heard during this engagement process”. But the Terms of Reference clearly show this will not be allowed to happen. The committee (although deemed to be independent) is instructed not to include anything in the report about water use, quality, land use plans, First Nations concerns, threatened species, or anything else outside the Energy Minister’s portfolio. Many Albertans believe this makes a mockery out of the committee and the consultation process.
On March 29, 2021, Sonya Savage announced the details of how the consultation process will proceed. The goal should be more accurately identified as the development of a Land Use Plan to protect Alberta water and the Eastern Slopes as opposed to a “Modern Coal Policy “ for Alberta. On April 13, a private member’s bill (Bill 214: The Eastern Slopes Protection Act ) was introduced to the Standing Committee on Private Member’s Bills. A private member’s bill must be approved by this committee before it can go the Legislature for debate. Although the actual debate during the committee meeting smacked of party politics and blaming from both sides, the end result was an acknowledgement by all speakers that they had heard from their constituents on this issue. The Committee members unanimously voted to approve the bill to move forward to the Legislature for debate. However, on April 19, the Alberta Legislature turned down the request for special debate on this Bill 214, which means it will likely die on the order paper.
On February 8, 2021, in response to mounting pressure from the public, the Minister of Energy announced that the Coal Development Policy of 1976 was re-instated, and that the government would plan for public consultation in the development of a modern policy. She made it clear in her announcement, however, that approvals already issued for exploration would not be removed. Additionally, the minister emphasized that the government plans to proceed with metallurgical coal mining and “ensure a path forward for investors”. On February 23, 2021, the Minister of Energy, Sonya Savage, stated in a press release: “Since announcing our commitment to widespread consultation on a modern coal policy for Alberta, we have heard from many passionate Albertans and interested groups who want to be engaged. I’m pleased to announce these public consultations will begin on March 29th. I have directed my department officials to bring forward a comprehensive consultation plan that is by Albertans and for Albertans. The details of the process will be announced before consultations begin.”