Head of Alberta coal mining panel says trust in regulatory system to be examined

Coal exploration is shown on Vicary Ridge just south of the Oldman River, taken in fall 2020. (Courtesy Alistair Des Moulins/Alberta Hiking Association)

A public consultation committee on coal mining in the Rocky Mountains will consider why Albertans' level of trust in the province's regulatory bodies is so low, the panel's head said Monday.

In an hour-long phone-in show on CBC Radio, Ron Wallace said he's concerned by results of a recent government survey on coal mining. Wallace pointed out that of about 25,000 respondents, 85 per cent said they were not confident that the industry was being adequately regulated.

“If people have diminished confidence that the regulators are protecting the public interest, then that's a major thing,” he said.

Wallace and his panel are consulting Albertans on how the government should develop coal resources. Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservatives had planned an extensive expansion of the industry, which would have opened tens of thousands of hectares of foothills and summits to open-pit mining.

The panel was struck in response to vocal outcry over the plan, which was announced before any feedback or advice had been sought. Energy Minister Sonya Savage also stopped the sale of any new exploration leases, as well as exploration work on the most sensitive land - although work proceeds in other areas.

Wallace said his committee has reached out to industry and environmental groups. Municipalities concerned about the proposal have been asked for a combined response.

He said the panel is also reaching out to First Nations but will defer most of those consultations to separate talks.

Most of the calls he took were from people fearing contamination of water supplies and damage to one of Alberta's best-loved landscapes.

“The entire watershed is going to be at risk from the coal mining,” said one caller from Lethbridge. “Our property, our irrigated agriculture, are all going to be worth less if this thing goes ahead.”

Another caller gave qualified support to coal development.

“These resources are extremely important,” he said. “In a province where the majority of public opinion is in favour of oilsands mining, to say we don't like coal ... mining is somewhat hypocritical.”

In response to one caller who said coal mines “aren't worth the risk,” Wallace said Albertans have to be able to trust those charged with protecting the land and water. He said it was “very troubling” that trust seems to be in short supply.

“We are going to look very, very closely at understanding how that dynamic has happened.”

Wallace said regulatory confidence is fundamental to the public and to industry.

“The public has got to have assurance that its regulators are in fact working on behalf of the broader public interest. If that's diminished in any way, then you're going to have problems giving regulatory certainty to any investors that are coming in to the province.”

Coal mining is regulated by the Alberta Energy Regulator, which also governs the province's oil and gas sector. Industry must abide by both provincial and federal environmental law.

Wallace acknowledged his own group faces suspicion.

“Anyone that's associated with government agencies is under a great deal of scrutiny,” he said.

He pointed out that, within days of receiving the government survey results, it was his panel that recommended Savage pause exploration activity while consultation occurred.

Wallace promised that all submissions made to the panel will be made public. The panel is accepting all comments through its website.

It is expected to report in November.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021.