National Newswatch

EDMONTON — Early results from a provincial survey on coal mining in the Rocky Mountains show Albertans have major concerns about expanding the industry.

"More than 90 per cent of respondents felt there are areas of the province that are not appropriate for coal exploration and development," say the survey results released late Monday.

Albertans told the government that those off-limits areas could include not only the Rockies and the foothills, but wildlife corridors, areas near water bodies, recreational areas and those near residential developments or farms.  

Respondents suggested areas that might be good for coal mining could be foothills land of lower environmental value, existing mine sites, northern areas with low population or lands with no other use. 

Out of eight issues related to coal mining, including how mines would be approved and regulated, environmental impacts were rated as most important. Economic impacts were rated least important. 

The most common issue respondents said they wanted to discuss was the coal industry's effect on water. Other important issues included sustainability, long-lasting contamination and future liability for mine cleanup.

Alberta Energy sponsored the online survey as part of its coal consultation. That was drawn up after a loud outcry over the United Conservative government's plan to dramatically increase coal mining in the summits and eastern slopes of the Rockies — a plan that was announced without any input from the public. 

A five-member panel is soliciting submissions from various groups around the province.

The survey also says that nearly two-thirds of Albertans felt the economic benefits of coal mining weren't important. Another 25 per cent said they were only somewhat important. 

Nearly 25,000 Albertans from all age groups and from throughout the province responded to the online survey between March 29 and April 19.

"It remains clear that Albertans are passionate about this topic," Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in an emailed statement.

"Our government is committed to ensuring that Albertans can participate in an open dialogue on Alberta's long-term approach to coal. The survey provided valuable information and guidance for the coal policy committee to consider."

The consistent opposition to coal mining is telling, said New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt.

"The government did everything they could to put their finger on the scale of the results. Even with the tilted questions. Albertans clearly said that they do not want to see any more coal mines on our eastern slopes.   

"The government would be wise to listen."

Ian Urquhart of the Alberta Wilderness Association said the survey results were consistent with a poll his group commissioned in February, which found 69 per cent of respondents disapproved of coal mining in the Rockies and 49 per cent strongly disapproving of any mining there.

He said more than 90 per cent of respondents in the government poll were from southern or central Alberta. 

"These areas are bedrocks of UCP electoral support," Urquhart said. 

"To see such overwhelming, unmitigated opposition to the government's commitment to promoting the coal mining industry should send shivers down the spines of UCP political strategists."

The survey will go to the coal consultation committee, which is expected to report in November. 

Public concern has caused the government to pause all exploration activities on the most sensitive landscapes, although they may continue elsewhere. Further sales of exploration leases have been halted, although tens of thousands of hectares have already been leased. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2021.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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